Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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The important impressionistics

Style and substance in the first debate

The important impressionistics

 

 

The first presidential debate, bottom line: Barack Obama, while not exactly delivering a standout performance for the ages, essentially dueled John McCain to a draw. Obama was slightly ahead in the polls when he took the stage - the first Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996 to enter debate season with a lead - and he did no damage to his position. He twisted a number of facts along the way (as did McCain), and he blew a few golden opportunities to score points, but he appeared to exude sufficient confidence on foreign policy to dispel some of the public doubts about his readiness to command. Basically, Obama was ahead going in, and a tie generally benefits the guy who was ahead.

There's a rough parallel to 1960. JFK went into the first debate as the perceived inexperienced candidate (despite his nearly 14 years on Captiol Hill, whereas Richard Nixon was widely seen as the seasoned candidate on foreign policy, having spent eight years as Dwight Eisenhower's veep. Kennedy demonstrated that he could stand toe to toe with Nixon and converse just as articulately about foreign policy - his style was arguably better than his substance; his warning about a "missile gap" with the Soviets was factually bogus - and his poise and confidence dispelled some of the public doubts about his readiness to command.

McCain, it must be noted, actually did quite well last night, in terms of the stylistics. Give the guy credit; considering everything that he had heaped on his plate this week - lurching around Washington and leaving himself scant time for debate prep - he was mentally sharp and verbally crisp for the entire 90 minutes. In the early minutes, he worked in a couple jokes about his age, but they probably weren't necessary. His performance was arguably good enough to dispel some of the public doubts about his energy to command.

I'm dwelling on the stylistics for obvious reasons. The key viewers last night were the undecided swing voters; by definition, many don't follow politics closely. Their view of the candidates is largely impressionistic - not just because they generally don't track the nuances of complex issues, but because, quite frankly, it's often difficult (even for political junkies) to figure out which candidate in a debate is talking straight and which candidate is slinging the bull. Last night, at various junctures, both guys filled both roles.

One of Obama's chief goals was to meet the commander-in-chief standard by demonstrating requisite foreign policy toughness; he sought to do this by arguing that the disastrous war has drained our resources and undercut our mission to win the war on terror, especially in . Perhaps Obama's strongest moment came when he stared down McCain, recited some of McCain's early whoppers about how would go swimmingly, and repeatedly told McCain, "You were wrong." (Interestingly, McCain barely looked at Obama all night, a sign of his disdain.)

But later in the debate, Obama said this to McCain: "At one point, while you were focused on , you said well, we can 'muddle through' . You don't 'muddle through' the central front on terror and you don't 'muddle through' going after bin Laden. You don't 'muddle through' stamping out the Taliban." That came off as a decent soundbite, but it was set up by Obama's twisting of McCain's original words. Back in 2003, McCain was merely voicing cautious optimism about the friendly Afghan regime. It comes down to the difference between can (Obama's paraphrase) and may. McCain's '03 quote: "I believe that if Karzai can make the progress that he is making, that, in the long term, we may muddle through in Afganistan."

At another point, Obama argued that a 16-month troop withdrawal timetable in Iraq would help us shift military resources to Afghanistan - and he intimated that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed with him: "The commanders in Afghanistan, as well as Admiral (Mike) Mullen, have acknowledged that we don't have enough troops to deal with Afghanistan because we still have more troops in Iraq than we did before the surge." McCain interrupted, saying: "Admiral Mullen suggests that Senator Obama's plan is dangerous for ." To which Obama replied, "That's not the case." McCain insisted, "That's what Admiral Mullen said." To which Obama replied, "He did not say that, that's not true."

Give the edge to McCain on this one. Mullen told Fox News this summer that he didn't like the idea of pulling troops out of by 2010: "I think the consequences would be dangerous. I'm convinced that making reductions based on conditions on the ground are very important."

But McCain, for his part, reeled off a string of falsehoods that the typical undecided voter would hardly have been able to identify. For the umpteenth time, he claimed that Obama "has voted in the United States Senate to increase taxes on people who make as low as $42,000 a year," which (as I have twice pointed out in this space) is dead wrong. Obama voted for a non-binding budget resolution, which was predicated on allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on schedule in 2011; from that vote, McCain concocted his falsehood. Obama had stated, earlier in the debate, that he wants "a tax cut for 95 percent of working families," and he probably should have repeated it to cancel out McCain. He also could have told the viewers that 95 percent of families with children would get a tax break under his plan - far more than other McCain's plan - and that this finding comes from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.   

McCain also had a couple weak moments while trying to play "maverick." He claimed that he "warned about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac" several years ago, making it appear that he was a seer. The truth is that it took him 16 months to sign on to a tough Senate regulatory reform bill. He claims now that he and many others "saw this train wreck coming." The truth is, he waited 16 months until the regulatory train appeared to be leaving the station. Obama, ideally, could have pointed this out. Obama repeatedly assailed the Republican deregulation ethos, but missed several opportunities to specifically tie McCain to that ethos, starting with the landmark '99 GOP legislation (honchoed by his friend and adviser Phil Gramm) to unshackle the financial community from federal oversight.

Another faux-maverick moment was when McCain sought to claim that he stood against Ronald Reagan when the president wanted to commit U.S. troops to Lebanon. McCain's words: "Back in 1983, when I was a brand-new United States congressman, the person I admired the most and still admire the most, Ronald Reagan, wanted to send Marines into Lebanon. And I saw that, and I saw the situation, and I stood up, and I voted against that, because I was afraid that they couldn't make peace in a place where 300 or 400 or several hundred Marines would make a difference. Tragically, I was right: Nearly 300 Marines lost their lives in the bombing of the barracks."

The only problem with that? Reagan committed the Marines to a year earlier, in 1982, before McCain even made it to Congress. What McCain was referring to, in the debate, was a subsequent '83 vote on whether to keep the Marines in for an additional 18 months. McCain did indeed vote no; however, it wasn't so surprising that he "saw the situation," given the fact that more than 50 Marines had already been killed. But, again, few people watch these TV debates with history books stacked in their laps.

So I'm back to the bottom line, the impressionistics. McCain was more emotive, more visceral, and that plays well on television - whereas Obama for the umpteenth time missed opportunities to bond emotionally with the audience at home. When McCain was going on and on earmark reform, Obama could have demanded to know how earmark reform was going to help the beleaguered average working American. (The average American is ticked off; Obama would be smart to show that he's ticked off, too.) Later, when McCain sneered at him about being willing to meet with Iran's Holocaust-denying president, Obama could have seized the moment by declaring foresquare allegience to Israel and pledging to upbraid any petty tyrant who tries to mess with us. But, unfortunately for Obama, that's not his style. His weakest moment was when McCain seized the emotional high ground by noting that he wears a bracelet honoring a dead American solider - and Obama reacted by saying, "I've got a bracelet, too."

All told, it's likely that neither guy did himself any real damage. Obama did what he needed to do, exuding confidence on McCain's policy turf. McCain did what he needed to do, painting himself as the seasoned hand (and uttering at least seven variations of "what Senator Obama doesn't understand"). The early returns appear to favor Obama; in a CBS News poll of undecided voters, 39 percent said that Obama "won" the debate, while 24 percent picked McCain. Thirty-seven percent called it a tie. 

The spin this weekend will be fierce, but what struck me last night, when the spinning began, was that only one vice presidential candidate was on site to lend a hand. Joe Biden, even at the risk of inserting foot in mouth yet again, was on the airwaves. As for the other one, she was holed up at a secret undisclosed location somewhere in Philadelphia , far from the cameras, perhaps taking remedial lessons on how to speak coherent sentences. On that debate score, at least, give an edge to Obama.

 

 

 

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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