Friday, September 26, 2008

Live-blogging the first Obama vs. McCain presidential debate

Other live-bloggers: 

9:01 - Starting . . .

9:18 - The first interesting thing I've heard: McCain responds to the argument that earmarks are a tiny percentage of the budget, so why does he make it the center of his economic plan? He gives two reasons: it's grown at a very fast rate (of course, it's grown from really tiny to somewhat less tiny), and it's "corrupt." Typically, McCain substitutes moralism for facts.

9:27 - Obama says we won't get done everything that "needs" to be done, but we'll get done everything that "has" to be done. That's a pretty fine distinction!

9:29 - I agree with National Review's Rich Lowry: "Obama is talking too fast."

9:31 - Lehrer asks a key question: are you changing anything about your previous plans based on the financial crisis? Clearly they should both have prepared a strong answer to this, right? Yet neither one seems to have anything to say.

9:34 - Obama gives it another shot. He clearly acknowledges he might have to put some of his proposals on hold, but he won't give specifics. Neither of them seems to have rethought any of their ideas on a qualitative level, as opposed to just accepting that there might be fewer funds available to do what they already wanted to do. McCain's whole answer is that he would be against "wasteful spending" -- which, of course, is no change at all to his earlier economic "plan."

9:44 - Key line from Obama: "You act like the war began in 2007."

9:46 - Good catch from TNR: Obama used the word "orgy."

9:48 - A pithy reality check on McCain and health care.

9:55 - McCain says, "I would not publicly state that I'm going to attack [Pakistan]." But doesn't that very statement imply that he would privately plan to attack Pakistan? (Or, rather, strike inside Pakistan, since that's all they're really talking about.) Now that he's publicly made that implication, hasn't he sort of . . . publicly stated that he might strike inside Pakistan?

9:57 - McCain: "I don't think Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came into power." I don't think McCain understands what Obama understands.

10:00 - "I've got a bracelet." "I've got a bracelet too!" Are these serious adults running for president, or is this summer camp?

10:04 - Subtly insightful advice for Obama:
Obama would do well not to say things like "al Qaeda are attacking our troops in a brazen fashion, they feel emboldened." It's academic language to describe something he should be passionate and visceral about. It reminds me of John Kerry.
10:08 - One of the things you want to watch for in these debates is if a candidate has a tell-tale facial expression or gesture. McCain trying to pronounce "Ahmadinejad" might have been one such moment. For a split-second, he seemed crazed. [UPDATE: Here's the clip.]

10:13 - A creepy statistic from McCain: "The average South Korean is three inches taller than the average North Korean." And this comes shortly after McCain quotes Ahmadinejad calling Israel a "stinking corpse." He's apparently working on a strategy of revolting bodily imagery. I can't quite explain it, but there's something fundamentally McCain-esque about this.

10:19 - McCain's staff clearly told him in the prep sessions, "Keep repeating, 'Obama doesn't understand . . . doesn't understand . . . doesn't understand...'"

10:23 - Obama: "We have only 3% of the world's oil reserves, but we consume 25% of the world's oil," so we can't just drill our way out of the problem. Maybe Obama was reading my "How Obama lost me" list, particularly point (6)(a).

10:34 - McCain says Obama's refusal to admit he was wrong on the surge is a problem because "we need more flexibility in a president." Hmmm...

10:36 - Good for Obama for getting explicit about his exotic family background and name, and connecting it to patriotism.

10:37 - It's over. They casually shake hands — "Good job, John!" "Good job!" It's impossible to know, of course, but I'll bet they basically like and respect each other. They have to grasp at straws for attacks they can use against each other because it's their job, but it's hard to take any of it very seriously. For all Hillary Clinton's warnings about how she was just giving us a taste of what the Republicans would use against the Democratic nominee, her attacks had real bite to them in a way that's lacking here. There was plenty of negativity tonight, but doesn't it feel kind of rehashed and watered down? Does anyone really believe that either of these two guys still feels passionately about how to parse Obama's comments from last year about meeting with dictators?

Afterthought — It's hard to imagine this debate swaying a significant number of voters based on people thinking that one candidate did better than the other, though I can imagine it swaying people toward Obama if they simply weren't familiar with him before and had to get more comfortable with him. Earlier today I was listening to the Beatles song "Wait" (from Rubber Soul), which made me remember a critic's very apt comment (paraphrasing): "It has a hypothetical, unfinished quality that makes it hard to feel strongly about." That's how I feel about this debate. It's sort of like: "here are some things they might say if they had a debate." More like a rehearsal than the real thing. They both did as well as they had to and didn't say much that's likely to be remembered for very long.

One more thought — The media consensus seems to be that it was close to a draw, with maybe a slight edge for McCain. But two focus groups and two polls all show that undecided voters were much more likely to think Obama won. I have a theory to explain this discrepancy. If you're a professional journalist, you're so used to all McCain's and Obama's rhetorical and personality quirks that you look past them and focus on who scored the most points. Most normal people don't sit there with a notepad keeping score. It's not: "Oh, he was just oversimplifying about taxes, but oooh, then he made a good point about energy . . ." No — you take it all in and get an overall impression. Obama's presentation is simply more appealing than McCain's, and — obviously this is subjective, but I do believe this — Obama comes off seeming like the more reasonable and intelligent of the two.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to be anonymous -- it's the only way I can post to your site.

Ah, were you watching the same debate I was? John McCain ate Obama's lunch. As I expected him to. The key for Obama will be whether he has someone on his staff who will be honest with him and tell him so, so that he can recover. My bet is that he doesn't and therefore won't. But I've been wrong before -- I did after all vote for Carter in '76.

Anonymous said...

Do you take suggestions from readers?

On future debates, you should put up a chatbox, to do live chat.

You can go to ' ' and create your own chat room to install right in blogposts .

Anonymous said...

McCain is in his element when talking about Military and foreign policy.

As for the economy, there's no solution, so I think both of them lost on that issue.

The economy can't be fixed other than just to let it bottom out and rise again on it's own. Naturally, no Candidate is going to say that, though.

Anonymous said...

"Ah, were you watching the same debate I was? John McCain ate Obama's lunch."

Huh? Obama focused on the big picture, while McCain could only drone on about minutia like Nunn-Lugar and "keep you eye on the Ukraine" and the Russian port of Kqgiusgiu, blah, blah, blah. WTF?

Ideologically, I hate both of these guys, but Obama came off as articulate and focussed, while McCain just rambled.

One Fine Jay said...

Rehashed and watered down?

This is because you and I and just about everyone and their mother-in-law's hairstylist's brother who by the way isn't even in this country is suffering from campaign fatigue.

Fatuous and quote honestly, flatulent, soundbiting from both sides at every possible moment they can take, and we the viewers are none the better for it.

Anonymous said...

How many times did Obama say: "McCain is absolutely right"

If McCain was 'absolutely right' about a number of issues.....why vote for Obama? .....other than that he's Black...

Anonymous said...

JAC, regarding your 9:55 comment, McCain was referring to Obama's threat from last year to attack Pakistan. McCain was not alluding to a plan of his own to do so.

In fact, McCain made several references this evening that presupposed some foreknowledge on the audience's part. I'm not sure that's a wise assumption for him to make, but at least it regards us as an informed citizenry.

Obama, on tbe other hand, repeatedly banged the gong of "Bush = McCain." That approach presumes an uninformed audience. I fear his asumption may be the more sound.

John Althouse Cohen said...

JAC, regarding your 9:55 comment, McCain was referring to Obama's threat from last year to attack Pakistan. McCain was not alluding to a plan of his own to do so.

You are incorrect about that.

The discussion did start out talking about Obama's comment, but then McCain talked in general terms about what he will and will not do.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Also, I'm pretty sure that McCain has supported Bush's unilateral strikes inside Pakistan. So this is not purely hypothetical.

You're distorting the issue by suggesting that it's about Obama's wild plan to "attack" Pakistan. Obama, McCain, and Bush are all in favor of unilateral strikes in Pakistan if necessary. It's going on right now, and McCain supports it.

MacFaux said...

"Earlier today I was listening to the Beatles song "Wait" (from Rubber Soul)"

..'Wait'..Really? Not 'Wait' by White Lion..well. Oh my sweet and dear fluffy lord. You need Shakabuku...a swift, spiritual kick to the head. That is just wrong thinking appreciation of Beatles genius.

As for Pah-kee-stahn, masticate upon Christopher Hitchens:

"...and on Pakistani soil and under the very noses of its army and the ISI, the city of Quetta and the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas are becoming the incubating ground of a reorganized and protected al-Qaida. Sen. Barack Obama has, if anything, been the more militant of the two presidential candidates in stressing the danger here and the need to act without too much sentiment about our so-called Islamabad ally. He began using this rhetoric when it was much simpler to counterpose the "good" war in Afghanistan with the "bad" one in Iraq. Never mind that now; he is committed in advance to a serious projection of American power into the heartland of our deadliest enemy. And that, I think, is another reason why so many people are reluctant to employ truthful descriptions for the emerging Afghan-Pakistan confrontation: American liberals can't quite face the fact that if their man does win in November, and if he has meant a single serious word he's ever said, it means more war, and more bitter and protracted war at that—not less."

ah, what the hell..been there done that. Lousy food in Zhob..and most of Baluchistan.

Nice blog. Mf.

Anonymous said...

JAC, I must have missed the transition point in McCain's comments. I'll defer to you on that one. Any distortion of the issue on my part was unintended.

As for the contrast in the candidates' debating strategies, I stand by the point.

Debbie Does Nothing said...

Anonymous said: "If McCain was 'absolutely right' about a number of issues.....why vote for Obama?"

What Obama said was he's right "but." The "but" outlined where Obama differs from McCain. McCain was speaking in generalities we can all agree on and Obama gave us specifics about what he would do.

I think Obama's willingness to find common ground between McCain and himself shows his ability to be bipartisan. He was reaching across the aisle while McCain refused to show Obama (and therefore people who agree with him) any respect.

Anonymous said...

One thing I noticed in the after debate analysis was the nearly exclusive focus on sound bites and body language ...everything but the substance of what was said. Now I get that the visual differences of the Kennedy-Nixon debates are now folk-lore, but it's gotten to the point that there is so little attention paid to the substance of what was said, people have invented a new measure for debates: did it 'sound' intelligent?' did it 'look' presidential?

So it is now obvious to any intellectually honest observer that Obama's approach to Iraq was to pull out troops, regardless of the consequences, to placate a liberal base during a presidential primary. In essence, lose the war on the grounds that continuing 'wasn't worth it'. We now know that precisely the opposite approach was needed in Iraq, the surge, his opponent in this race was a major proponent of this, and it has worked even beyond Obama's wildest expectations. Obama refuses to admit he was wrong to this day.

So what does Obama do when pressed to explain how he can’t admit the obvious? He claims that ‘we took our eye off the ball’ while winning in Iraq, and Afghanistan is now more violent. Let’s not even get into what Afghanistan, or even the region as a whole, would be like had we took Obama’s advice and lost in Iraq, but what is so preposterous about the argument is that it is such an obvious attempt to grasp for any kind of negative consequence* of actually winning in Iraq. In any normal kind of universe, the presidential candidate frantically arguing for a downside to winning a war wouldn’t have made it to Super Tuesday.

To hear anyone make such a ridiculous argument in a debate, and then comment that they ‘went toe to toe with McCain’ or ‘sounded fluent and intelligent’, can only be done if you aren’t even listening to what they are saying. To go further and say, that Obama only had to hold his own in a foreign policy debate, so he ‘won’, could only mean it’s the same definition for winning that Obama apparently subscribes to.

*(You can almost see his campaign brainstorming in front of a white board, listing any kind of negative consequence to winning in Iraq they could think of. Eradicating insurgents in Iraq so successfully that they’ve fled to one of the few remaining lawless areas in the region, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, was apparently the best they could come up with.)

Eowyn said...

My main impression was that it makes my teeth grind every time Obama calls McCain "John". (I only caught the first 25 minutes, though.) It's probably just that I'm a military brat, but that's just... disrespectful, somehow. Especially as McCain wasn't calling Obama "Barry". Other impressions: Yeah, McCain needed to get off the earmarks soapbox. They suck, but as Obama said, they're not anywhere near as big as the other budgetary problems. If McCain had stuck to the $800 billion Obama is planning on spending, perhaps tacking on the fact that that's more than the bailout is supposed to cost, he might have scored some serious points with regular people. Especially if he had addressed the fact that all money spent by the government is taxpayers' money.

And Obama needs to stop saying Pohkeeston. I'm a linguist-- if he's going to code switch trying to sound educated, he's going to have to learn the native pronunciations of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia... the list goes on. If he just does it when he wants to sound impressive, he sounds like a phony.

Debbie Does Nothing said...

Eowyn, how exactly is it disrespectful for one senator to address another senator by his first name? In the Dem debates, the candidates addressed each other by first name all the time.

Or do you mean that Obama doesn't have enough respect for his elders? Because I will certainly concede that McCain is much, much older.

Eowyn said...

Debbie, I just thought it was odd when McCain consistently referred to him as Senator Obama. Plus, I'm a military brat-- I grew up around yes sir, no ma'am. I called my mother-in-law Mrs. until the day I got married:)

Eowyn said...

Also on that note-- a presidential debate is a formal occasion. Senators may use first names with each other in private, committees, etc., but I've never seen them do it on the Senate floor in the middle of debate. Although that may just be my impatience with CSPAN.

Debbie Does Nothing said...

Eowyn, I guess our interpretations are probably influenced by the way we lean. To me, McCain's formality came across as rude. To you, Obama's informality was rude.

Presidential debates tend to be less formal than debates in Congress. This particular debate was set up to be more of a conversation between the 2 candidates. Lehrer tried to get them to speak directly to each other - Obama did, McCain didn't.

Eowyn said...

Debbie, for what it's worth, I would have found McCain rude if he'd been "Barry"-ing away with Obama calling him Senator McCain. I understand your point of view though.