Primacy and recency are the effects by which most debates are scored. As for presidential candidates, delivery, tone, and demeanor matter as much, if not more. Obama’s challenge in the first debate was to appear presidential without being professorial, particularly on foreign policy matters. As for McCain, this was his opportunity to show his experience, his fluency on matters that define the president as leader of the free world. Tonight’s show — expertly handled by moderator Jim Lehrer — was modified to focus on economic matters during the first 40 minutes.
Polling in the next few days will bear out whether this race is about to bust the five-percent margin barrier, which most recently has tipped the advantage to Obama. In the immediate aftermath of the debate — even as McCain’s campaign already sent out viral ads before the debate’s end featuring the eight (by my count) times that Obama said McCain was right — every major snap poll suggests advantage to Obama. Incidentally, McCain said Obama didn’t understand seven times.
Compared to the more than 20 debates he had with his Democratic challengers during the primary season, Obama was sharper, crisper, and more approachable tonight than at any time I can recall. In fact, he was more direct than McCain who rambled more often than not, and McCain’s statements were frequently long winded and unnecessarily contemplative. McCain, who chuckled incessantly throughout the debate (as annoying as Gore’s sigh during the 2000 debates), seemed sarcastic, patronizing, and mendacious at times. There was a sneer and the widely-acknowledged lack of eye contact with his opponent. At times, McCain’s body language telegraphed anger. That could ultimately be more important in how citizens — and not policy wonks — look at this debate.
Let’s go to some highlights and comments along with some quick fact checking:
Economics and the bailout — Both agreed to some form of the bailout. McCain spent way too much time on earmarks in the federal budget. Obama was effective — especially in his emphasis on the middle class — with regard to taxes, health care, and energy independence. In fact, McCain’s emphasis was nearly frightening in terms of its narrowed focus on government spending.
The highlights came in this portion:
Obama: “It’s been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time, who presided over this increase in spending, this orgy of spending… and you voted for almost all of his budgets.”
McCain, obviously bristling, responded: “It is well known I have not been elected Ms. Congeniality in the Senate or with this administration… I have opposed this president on climate change, torture, Guantanamo bay, spending… the American people know me very well and that is independent and a maverick of the Senate.”
Obama delivered some elegant understated smackdowns especially on McCain’s corporate tax claims. When McCain proposed a broad spending freeze (except for defense, veterans, and unspecified entitlements), Obama responded that the tactic amounted to “using a hatchet where you need a scalpel.” That phrase likely encapsulated the differences in the way each would govern as president.
The snap polls gave this portion of the debate convincingly to Obama.
However, the real surprises came in the foreign policy portion of the debate. This is where Obama needed to appear authoritative. In fact, more so than with any other major Democratic nominee in recent history, Obama commanded the issues of national defense, often coming more impressively aggressive on issues of foreign policy.
Some of the most contentious exchanges came on Pakistan. McCain called Obama naive for saying that he would go after terrorists in the country even if the Pakistani government disputed such findings. McCain committed a major factual gaffe — calling Pakistan a failed state — regarding the circumstances of how now-former President Pervez Musharraf came to power in a 1999 military coup when he deposed Nawaz Sharif, who also was among the candidates in the most recent election.
The coup followed the 1999 war in Kashmir with India and was due to a power struggle with Sharif, not due to Pakistan — which already had nuclear weapons at the time — being a “failed state” as McCain claimed. The record shows the United States did not endorse the Musharraf coup and had imposed sanctions as a result. One wonders, given McCain’s insistence about the difference between strategy and tactics, if he really understood the notion that fundamental strategic positioning starts with knowing who your enemy really is. To wit, the following examples.
For a candidate who has made much of his advantages over his opponent in this area of policy, McCain was off. He muffed the name of the current Pakistani president (Zidari not Kidari) and stumbled a couple of times trying to say Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s name. Nonetheless, he insisted on Obama’s lack of experience in this area.
Obama scored big on Afghanistan by resurrecting an old McCain quote that suggested the GOP candidate thought the war there was secondary in nature. “No one is talking about defeat in Iraq,” Obama said, “but we are having more problems in Afghanistan because of that decision… at one point while you were focused on Iraq you said we could ‘muddle through’ Afghanistan. You don’t muddle through the central war on terror, you don’t muddle going after Osama bin Laden.”
Obama clearly sounded more realistic, mature, and presidential as well on Iran, giving a cogent answer and he played Henry Kissinger’s remarks back against McCain quite effectively. McCain had criticized Obama for his willingness to talk to Ahmadinejad while Obama retorted that Kissinger (a foreign policy adviser in McCain’s campaign) had advocated high-level engagement to start negotiations. After the debate, Kissinger issued a statement clarifying his position that essentially said the level of talks would best begin at the secretary of state level rather than at the presidential level. In other words, it was a case of both candidates being right. And, for the record, Kissinger — just six days before on CNN which had assembled a group of the most recent secretaries of state for a panel discussion — said the following:
“Well, I am in favor of negotiating with Iran. And one utility of negotiation is to put before Iran our vision of a Middle East, of a stable Middle East, and our notion on nuclear proliferation at a high enough level so that they have to study it. And, therefore, I actually have preferred doing it at the secretary of state level so that we — we know we’re dealing with authentic…
“FRANK SESNO (CNN): Put at a very high level right out of the box???
“KISSINGER: Initially, yes. And I always believed that the best way to begin a negotiation is to tell the other side exactly what you have in mind and what you are — what the outcome is that you’re trying to achieve so that they have something that they can react to.?? Now, the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Japan and Germany, have all said nuclear weapons in Iran are unacceptable. They’ve never explained what they mean by this. So if we go into a negotiation, we ought to have a clear understanding of what is it we’re trying to prevent. What is it going to do if we can’t achieve what we’re talking about??? But I do not believe that we can make conditions for the opening of negotiations. We ought, however, to be very clear about the content of negotiations and work it out with other countries and with our own government.”
On the matter of McCain’s refusal to meet with Spain’s leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Obama said the following:
“I just have to make this general point that the Bush administration, some Senator McCain’s own advisors all think this is important, and Senator McCain appears resistant. He even said the other day that he would not meet potentially with the prime minister of Spain because he wasn’t sure whether they were aligned with us. I mean, Spain. Spain is a NATO ally. If we can’t meet with our friends, I don’t know how we are going to lead the world in terms of dealing with critical issues like terrorism.”
And, as the debate ended, Obama struck a sharp contrast with his opponent who essentially concluded his remarks almost exclusively about the prospects of remaining indefinitely in Iraq. Meanwhile, Obama — clearly focused on simplifying the message for the ordinary audience — talked about the wisdom of the broader global responsibilities on security and terrorism, especially with regard to Al Qaeda and nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. Obama also graciously credited McCain with his statement that the United States should not engage in torturing prisoners.
It’s hard to say how this debate moves the electorate in terms of their candidate support. Research shows that presidential debates in recent campaigns do not move the polling trends all that much, certainly no more than the span covered by the margin of error in polling samples. And, candidates who perform masterfully in debates do not necessarily benefit at the ballot box. John Kerry was considered impressive against Bush in the first 2004 debate but he didn’t gain the advantage. Even more decisively, Walter Mondale outperformed the incumbent Ronald Reagan in the first 1984 debate but Reagan still managed a 49-state sweep of electoral votes.
Obama might have gained a couple of percentage points at the poll but McCain — who has had a lousy week — still managed a decent performance. However, it might be more telling to see how viewers process the nonverbal cues and body language of both candidates — because they were strikingly different.
Frankly, after the disastrous television interviews Sarah Palin gave in recent days, the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate between Palin and Joe Biden may serve to be a more decisive barometer of where this presidential campaign is heading.
SNAP POLL SUMMARY:
CBS Uncommitted Voters Sample:
Who Won? Obama, 40%; McCain, 22%, Tie, 38%, MOE 5%
Opinion of Obama? Better, 46%, Worse, 7%, No Change, 46%
Right Decisions about Economy? Obama, 68%, McCain, 41%
Who Won? Obama, 51%, McCain, 38%, MOE 4%
Iraq? Obama, 52%, McCain, 47%
Economy? Obama, 58%, McCain, 37%
Find Today's Daily Deal on the Best in Salt Lake City!