First Presidential Debate

Posted by Katherine | September 30, 2008 – 12:40 pm
Weighing in before the debate
Weighing in [mrdorkesq / Flickr]

OK, it’s several days after the fact. You’ve probably heard all you care to about McCain refusing to look at Obama, Obama stumbling over the name of the soldier on his bracelet, or general cluelessness/mindfulness on the financial crisis and the middle class. (If you’d like to relive any of that, the debate is here.) So to the blogosphere for some opinions you might not have gotten from your favorite commentators.

First, two scorecards. Joshua Kahn Russell lives in Oakland, California, but spends a lot of time criss-crossing the country fighting for racial and environmental justice. He was pretty disappointed by the debate (and threw food at a wall to prove it). But he thought McCain came out on top and drew a lesson from the performance:

I think McCain won in terms of political strategy, especially when discussing foreign policy. He understood how to shape ideas. I saw Obama constantly playing into conservative frames that McCain set for him, spending most of his time on the defensive, and frankly being too complex and nuanced for his own good.

McCain spent most of his time reinforcing the same message: that Obama is inexperienced and naive. […] Obama (mostly) retaliated with facts, not with messages that appeal to values or emotions.

Progressives can take a lesson from this. Activists always want to be right! We want to hammer the public with all our facts, with the proper footnotes and citation. […] Savvy communicators (like politicians) know that it doesnt matter if you are right, it matters if you are convincing. Being right is not enough.

Barry Eisler, a covert CIA agent turned Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned Bay Area thriller writer, gives the edge to Obama. He thought Obama managed to appear presidential and won the body-language game, but he had additional and less common reasons:

McCain also had a tendency to say, “Trust me, I’ll…” or “I promise, I’ll…”. After eight years of George Bush and in midst of an economic crisis, “Trust me” is a terrible way, indeed, a terrible phrase, to try to move the middle. […]

The biggest reason I think the evening was Obama’s rather than McCain’s comes back to brand. McCain was clearly at pains to bolster his Experience brand by emphasizing how long he’s been around, how many foreign leaders he’s known, how many countries he’s visited, how many issues he’s been involved with. […] But […] this is the wrong marketplace into which to try to introduce a product branded as “Experience.” McCain’s people realize this, and as I wrote a few days ago, they’re trying to respond to marketplace conditions by changing McCain’s brand to “Change/Reform.” But Change/Reform and Experience are dissonant brand claims, and McCain’s own debate efforts undercut his effort to modify the brand.

Now on to a big-picture view of the debate. Damolite is pro-Obama but tries to be objective and looks for “what’s left unsaid by the media.” S/he picked up on the squabble over strategy and tactics, felt that McCain ironically got the distinction wrong, and goes on to use the concepts to analyze the candidates themselves:

McCain has demonstrated throughout this campaign, that he is a tactical thinker not a strategic one, a Navy fighter pilot not an admiral […]. His campaign wages its battles day to day—win a news cycle here and there no matter what it takes (see selection of Sarah Palin, suspension of convention, suspension of campaign, threat to skip debates etc.) Obama, on the other hand, has shown himself to be a strategic campaigner. He was able to beat Hillary Clinton only because he had 50 state strategy to win both caucuses and primaries.

This distinction of tactician vs. strategist also becomes clear when you examine the different approaches they took in the debate. For McCain, it was important to win every argument, to get that last condescending jab in. […] On a tactical level, McCain shone, until you realize that, strategically, the Obama campaign had realized that the current issue of the campaign is McCain’s temperament. Can he be portrayed as the vicious, cranky old guy rather than bipartisan leader he claims he is? Secondly, the Obama campaign realized that this election is going to be decided by Independent voters and women. Independent voters tend not to like the personal negative attacks and women (I hope this isn’t sexist) tend to like consensus builders. For Obama, then, it was more important to fulfill the strategic goal of bringing in those voting bloc rather than making his committed supporters feel good about the verbal blows he landed. Political Rope-a-dope, you might say.

America’s choice is clear, McCain the master tactician or Obama the ultimate strategist.

Next up: some advice for each candidate. An anonymous New Hampshire Republican who blogs at Libertarian Leanings was somewhat disappointed with McCain’s performance and feels he should stop trying to distance himself from Bush on the Iraq war:

McCain voted for the invasion, so he should make it a point to explain why. He has said publicly and repeatedly that going into Iraq was the right thing to do, but with a campaign strategy that seeks to distance him from George Bush on all things, he has not been saying it lately. It’s wise to distance himself on some things, but not all things. The war in Iraq is one issue where he should publicly side with Bush. […]

Friday night he gave Obama a pass and let him argue that his mistakes on the surge are inconsequential when compared to the crucial mistake of invading Iraq in the first place. McCain has to attack that. [Obama’s] opposition to the surge […] was a huge mistake and would have been a catastrophe if the country had been forced to go along with him on it. […]

John McCain […] robs himself of some of his more powerful arguments by refusing to admit that he agrees with Bush.

Deanie Mills is a center-left opponent of the war. She comes from a military family and has a son who did two tours in Iraq. She also writes suspense thrillers. During the debate she hooked up online with Blue Star Families for Obama (”pro-military and pro-Obama”) and found it very “comforting” to chat with other military supporters who don’t “hero-worship the war-hero.” Deanie comments on one opportunity Obama missed:

If Obama had a mis-step, at least from the perspective of the Blue Star families watching, it was at the very end, when McCain said, “I love the veterans, and I will take care of them. They know that I will take care of them.”

So many military family bloggers hit the keys at that one that the system was clogged up for a moment. […]

Most of them were upset that Obama failed to take the moment to reveal the truth of McCain’s DISMAL track record in support of veterans. […]

One said, “WHY WHY WHY didn’t he go after his record?” Another said, “I cannot believe he didn’t go after McCain’s record.” […]

And finally, a thoughtful note on the “bracelet moment” from Nick Schweitzer, a software consultant in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He first commented several days before the debate on McCain’s use of his bracelet in stump speeches:

I think its a shame that he chooses to do that. There are troops who have fought in those wars on both sides of the aisle, some who believe in Obama, and some who believe in McCain. Some who believe that going to Iraq was right, and some that believe it was wrong.

I have a hard time with what he does because it creates this idea that somehow if you support the troops, you have to support him… when the fact is, not even all the troops support him. And that doesn’t change anyone’s patriotism.

Then, after the debate, Nick elaborated on his own blog:

It’s a losing battle for both sides to use this as an issue, and I wish they’d both just drop it. You will find plenty of troops in Iraq re-enlisting because they feel the mission is that important. God bless them for their service and dedication. You will also find many who either don’t re-enlist because they’ve become disheartened, or because they’ve been injured and don’t feel the sacrafice was worth it. Are you going to call them unpatriotic?

To wind up, one interesting aside: the live-viewing numbers for the debate were apparently on the low side. Sure, that could indicate voter apathy in an unending campaign, but couldn’t it also be because people wanted to go out on a Friday night and knew that the web would serve up the footage on demand later? This is 2008. It seems possibly not so useful to compare TV-viewing stats to those of previous years.

You can find more post-debate posts here.

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