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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Post-mortem on the first presidential debate

John McCain had a good night, while Obama's was at best average. I explain why that translates to an Obama loss in my latest guest-post at HughHewitt.com.

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[Copied here for archival purposes on November 5, 2008, from the post linked above at HughHewitt.com.]

(Guest Post by Bill Dyer a/k/a Beldar)

Based on their past performances in primary debates, John McCain substantially exceeded my expectations. Barack Obama performed no better or worse than I expected. Neither candidate made a serious miscue or breakthrough that will swing millions of votes. Although neither candidate ever achieved anything remotely approaching a knock-out punch or even a knock-down blow, McCain took more swings at Obama than vice versa, more of his shots actually landed, and overall they did more damage.

This debate will leave the campaigns essentially tied, which in the dynamics of this unusual election season is a strategic victory for McCain-Palin.

McCain avoided seeming mean, grumpy, or old-and-confused, but yet he was consistently the more aggressive of the two. I think that's a hard combination for John McCain to pull off, especially when he's probably quite weary, but he did. He didn't snap or snarl a single time, but neither was he ever meek.

The Obama-Biden meme of the past week has been "McCain is impetuous and lacks a presidential temperament," and that is, in all candor, one of McCain's greatest potential vulnerabilities. But it was a meme that Obama could only make stick if McCain blundered by seeming impetuous and intemperate tonight. And Obama was far too cautious to risk trying to provoke a show of the McCain temper by deliberately needling him. No doubt to David Axelrod's great disappointment, McCain didn't fall into the trap, but rather busted it.

Moreover, if — as I expect — an economic bailout bill of some sort passes next week, McCain will be able to claim at least partial credit both for getting the necessary number of skeptical House Republicans on board and for getting their concerns at least partially addressed by the compromises made as compared to the original Paulson-Pelosi-Frank plan. McCain will emerge looking like a courageous legislator, statesman, and grown-up. Obama will end up being confirmed as an immature poseur.

McCain isn't naturally as charming as Ronald Reagan was, but neither is he without charm, and such charm as he does have showed through. He didn't have as strong a moment tonight as he did during the GOP debate in which he explained that he couldn't vouch for whether the Woodstock concerts were really a great cultural and pharmacological experience because he was "tied up at the time," but such moments are rare, and to be effective they can't seem contrived. The victors in the betting on how often tonight McCain would mention his POW experience were definitely those who "bet the under."

Obama was, I think, on auto-pilot tonight — McCain's disruption of Obama's pre-debate preparations this week was a tactical coup, because it kept Obama from polishing up and getting his best game face on — and Obama's natural dynamic advantages of youth and energy were self-governed down to levels which effectively neutralized them. My guess is that he desperately wanted to deny any doubters in the audience with latent racist tendencies any occasion to see him as an "angry young black man," and that for the vastly larger, entirely non-racist American audience, he wanted to avoid seeming disrespectful.

That leaves Obama only with the upside that has always been predicted for him in these debates — viz, the credibility that enshrouds a very junior and unaccomplished senator from being recognized and treated as an equal in this hallowed setting. But he was going to get that by default, and I don't think tonight's exposure added very much for very many voters beyond that which he'd already managed with his "Obama-as-Apollo" routine at the Democratic National Convention. Obama was, thus, precisely the same candidate who never definitively closed the deal on the Democratic nomination during his final primary debates against Hillary Clinton, and who won instead by running out the clock on a narrow lead built early and in improbable places.

Unlike the primaries, though — in which votes, once cast, mostly stick rather than evaporate (although Obama proved they're subject to erotion through manipulation of the Dems' ridiculous mixed primary-and-caucus system) — Obama's current lead is only in opinion polls, and opinions are volatile and unreliable. The ticking clock therefore can't give Team Obama the same degree of comfort in the general election.

I don't agree with the conventional wisdom that a tie goes to Obama, and I don't think this was even a tie. Obama is still the greater unknown of the two candidates, and the most vulnerable to last-minute jitters in the voting booth on election day. Obama needs these debates to open a big lead that will be immune to last-minute erosion, and he did not advance that goal tonight. That's the main reason why, in the big picture, he lost this debate.

The commentary I've read has been effusive in praising Jim Lehrer, but I reluctantly and respectfully dissent. Lehrer has earned the respect of the candidates and the public, he has appropriate gravitas, and he is entirely genial and respectful himself. He made no effort to engage in gotcha journalism or to steal the show, and he was a model of fairness. These are all essential qualities, and I don't think anyone else currently on the scene could do these particular things as well as Lehrer did them tonight.

Nevertheless, a moderator's job most important job is to sharpen the contrast between the candidates and help them more clearly define the differences between them. At that, Lehrer utterly failed tonight. His questions were so vague that he might as well have just said, "Sen. Obama will now ramble for twelve minutes on anything even tangentially related to the pending economic bailout bill," followed by "Now it's Sen. McCain's turn to ramble." And that's exactly what both candidates did: It was as if you'd filled a shoe-box with their 10- to 90-second sound bites from earlier in the campaign, tumbled it end-over-end a few times, and then pulled the results out at random. There was simply no coherence to the discussion, especially in the first third, no way that voters could mentally put each man's statements across from each other in parallel columns and compare them. Indeed, neither man was even at his best in regurgitating those sound bites.

Perhaps because they were both tired from the events of the past week, or perhaps because neither is, by nature, a commanding and intuitive debater, neither participant was able to lift his efforts beyond the very low bar that Lehrer's questions set. From the standpoint of actually explicating or generating enthusiasm for either side's policies, neither side had a particularly good night.

That frustrates my sense of political aesthetics, but from a strategic and relative comparison, but it's another overall plus for McCain: Obama's appeal depends on clever programs and multi-point proposals far more than McCain's. Thus, the secondary reason why, in the big picture, Obama lost tonight is because Obama failed to convert on one of his most precious opportunities to effectively sell those clever plans and multi-point proposals.

I do not expect the vice presidential debate to remotely resemble tonight's. To begin with, moderator Gwen Ifill will not be nearly as vague and deferential. In tonight's bout, the two fighters spent far too much time flailing weakly at each other from the clench, without referee Lehrer doing much to break them apart.

But most importantly, the Veep debate will be the first opportunity for Gov. Sarah Palin to be heard at length since her acceptance speech. Most folks don't realize that in addition to debates during the 2006 Alaska GOP gubernatorial primary, Gov. Palin participated in something like 24 debates in 45 days against her two general election opponents.

Gov. Palin knows how to jab and move, and when she gets an opening, she can punch way harder than some folks expected. I also think she'll benefit from being misunderestimated — both by the public and, probably, by her opponent — coming in. As with her convention speech, I await the Veep debate with some trepidation, but mostly with gleeful anticipation.

— Beldar

Posted by Beldar at 04:07 AM in 2008 Election, Global War on Terror, McCain, Obama, Politics (2008) | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Carol Herman made the following comment | Sep 27, 2008 9:46:04 AM | Permalink

Nah. I don't agree. McCain "flip-flopped" into the debate. And, unlike LBJ, when LBJ knew how to count votes in the senate; McCain looks like a "maverick." A man without a plan.

While Bush, again, is being pig-headed; just like he was with Harriet Meirs; McCain now seems quite the pig-head, himself.

Otherwise, why wasn't he discussing this TERRIBLE bailout plan? Why wasn't he talking about FUNDING TAX BREAKS TO ANY AMERICAN willing to buy a home right now? No mortgage money? You mean the banks are purposely holding back on "doing loans?" I guess a bailout, then, is a better business bet, huh?

(2) HChambers made the following comment | Sep 27, 2008 10:32:12 AM | Permalink

I respectfully disagree. It may be throwing meat to your base to vent about a bailout plan in public that is fragile with a great gaping disaster looming, but it sure doesn't help your minority party to be respectfully listened to in terms of helping craft a less unpalatable plan than the original that was floated. In terms of the debate, I think Sen. Obama's performance will look weaker over time as several of his confident assertions about his own past statements are compared to video clips that show what his actual words in fact were, proving his assertions wrong.

(3) Susan in Oregon made the following comment | Sep 27, 2008 12:36:28 PM | Permalink

The left will say it's my conservative bias but as I watched the debate, knowing that McCain went into the republican caucus and told them he was willing to stand alone on the bailout, I wanted to hear what Obama would say about our financial problems. What I heard was that he would not want to give up his childhood education spending. WHAT? It went down from there as far as Barack Obama's creditibility for me. He hasn't done one thing on behalf of Americans. He showed us all that he won't protect America, he won't give up spending and he demeans good Americans who see through him.

(4) Carol Herman made the following comment | Sep 27, 2008 3:56:04 PM | Permalink

First of all, the MSM has a stake, here, too. Because? By Monday they may find themselves held responsible for the lies we may be hearing?

What lies? Well, per the democrats, "we've probably got a signed, sealed, and deliver "bill." That's heading to Bush's desk.

Meanwhile, when Barry Obama erupted at the White House meeting, he absolutely TERRIFIED our commander-in-chief. Bush can't stand people who argue! At least McCain just jumped out of his chair, and before he could be held back, he flew out the door.

That's why you heard of Paulson going down on bended need to Pelosi. Because? As soon as McCain left without a word, the democrats panicked. And, they all piled into the windowless Roosevelt room. (To have a chat.) And, then? Obama also fled the cameras.

So, it's obvious to me that the democrats don't have a deal. Or Obama would have told the world this good news during Friday's debates.

We're probably just watching a game of "chicken."

Sure, in Congress, in BOTH HOUSES, the democrats have the majority. Which give them enough votes to pass this turkey. BUT. THEY. WON'T!

Why is this missing from the story line?

McCain? If we're lucky, he decided to "hold his fire." And, instead of being the point of ignition ... for a NO GO ... He's letting the people in the legislature; who depend on republican voters ... to figure it all out.

You think congress critters, by definition, are suicide volunteers? If this were true, we would have seen explosions, already, while congress was in session.

Meanwhile, you can sometimes figure out the good guys will show up at HIGH NOON. And, they won't just give away so much treasure to the most undeserving bastards on this earth!

WOW! If McCain isn't as pig-headed as Bush? Well, then, he might win. And, he might, yet, get people more excited? You just never know.

McCain's cards are close to his vest. And, I'm sure a few sane minded people on his staff are close to his ears.

You think McCain likes feeling like Bob Dole did back in 1996? I think nothing scares him more than losing this presidential bid; because he can't sway enough folk to vote for him.

The debates? Didn't change anyone's minds. But McCain, like Bush, has a lot to learn about losing the respect of the people.

Hey, any of you remember how Bush went to the mat for Harriet Meirs? She didn't want to let go of her nomination, either. Andy Card took 3 ties to talk common sense into that IDIOT! (And, what did Andy Card tell her? He told her she'd become the laughing stock of this nation, once her hearing got televised.

In other words? Harriet Meirs stood no chance at all of being "approved" to sit on the big bench.

And, Bush? What's he got? Popularity ain't it. And, maybe? Well, maybe, he has less than his dad's? Maybe, Ross Perot will write a book?

(5) MartyH made the following comment | Sep 27, 2008 10:31:05 PM | Permalink

John McCain said last night that he wants accountability. As a citizen, I am 100% in agreement. I want a robust public debate on the bill; I want a floor vote on the bailout package, whether it passes or not. I want to know who votes for potentially the biggest boondoggle this country has ever seen; I want to see who is willing to risk pushing this country into a second Great Depression.

And hold Pelosi and Reid accountable if they can't get a vote done before the market crashes.

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