I was wiped out last night, and didn’t stick around to talk to folks after the discussion ended a little before midnight. Long day. I hope folks didn’t think I was rude, but I’d been fighting a cold and had no resources left. I’d told everyone at the start that I was just there to observe; it was the newsroom’s show.
As I said last night from my Treo, I don’t think this was a debate that changed any minds — although Norm raised the interesting point that the candidates were speaking to voters who hadn’t paid attention until now, and that on that score he thought McCain did better. I can’t say, because I wasn’t looking for that while I watched.
Nor do I have an overall observation or theme. I thought each candidate exhibited some strengths and weaknesses, as follows:
- Having been right about the Surge. There’s so much more to that than the fact that by sending those extra troops, and using them properly, we created a stituation in which we can start talking about drawing down and leaving behind a stable Iraq. It goes to the core fact that McCain was right, and Bush was wrong, for four years before the president finally got rid of Rumsfeld and switched to a strategy that would work. This narrative (and so many other things) gives the lie to the Democrats’ "McCain equals Bush" nonsense. It communicates that he won’t give up on our nation’s commitments, or let American blood be spent for nought. And it shows he knows the differences between approaches likely to work, and those not to.
- The constant reminders of his long experience with these issues. The answer he gave to the "bomb, bomb Iran" remark was his best moment. He gave the history of his judgments of major decisions involving the deployment of our military, from being against sending the Marines to Lebanon in 83 to backing Clinton on Bosnia in defiance of many in his party. It strongly suggested the thought, "Oh, yeah — and Obama just got to the Senate…"
- His long-held opposition to earmarks and wasteful spending, and clear willingness to use his veto and the bully pulpit to fight it. Lehrer was irritating with his constant hammering on "if the bailout passes, what will you give up," but McCain gave the best answer.
- The reminder that he and Biden pushed through the 9/11 commission, again in spite of the Bush administration.
- His answer on the initial economic question, emphasizing how encourage he was that Democrats and Republicans were working together finally, made Obama’s answer about "failed policies" of Republicans look petty.
- One overrides all others, and he did it repeatedly and intentionally — his condescending references to Obama "not understanding" issues. Obama is a smart man, but even if he weren’t, McCain’s constant attempts to put him down would have been unseemly, and beneath him. Yes, I believe there are some things Obama "doesn’t get," but that’s not a gentlemanly way of putting it, and I’m betting it created a lot of sympathy for Obama. Most of all, it was inconsistent with the sort of man McCain is — he is usually deeply humble and gracious to those who disagree with him (something that I think is all the more admirable because of his natural temper; he has chosen to be mild in disagreement, and it speaks well of him). This was artificial and offensive, and whoever talked him into taking this approach should not be listened to again.
- As we knew already, he is not as smoothly articulate as his opponent. He lost himself in his sentences a number of times, particularly toward the end, and that did him no good.
- His argument that Iraq has sapped our resources to the point that we can’t "project force" where we need to elsewhere in the world. Yes, Democrats have long said this in regard to Afghanistan, but he took it beyond that. This remains the strongest argument that critics of our involvement in Iraq have, and he used it well, doing an excellent job of distancing himself from those in his party who are reflexively against ANY military action, and that’s something he has to do to be credible as a candidate for commander in chief.
- Beyond exhausting the military, he also made a good argument that Iraq has enabled and strengthened Iran — a familiar argument, but he presented it well.
- His gracious acknowledgment of the courageous leadership McCain showed in standing up to the administration on torture. The normal Democratic position is that McCain "caved" on the issue, and is no better than Bush. That’s a deeply unfair characterization, and Obama showed himself to be above that.
- More articulate, as always (see "McCain weaknesses").
- Continuing to be wrong on the Surge, and not acknowledging it, hurts him with everyone else except his base. Trouble is, that base will go nuclear if he acknowledges it. (The thing is that logically, he could still assert it was wrong to go INTO Iraq, but that the Surge was the thing to do.) The "worked beyond wildest expectations" earlier helped, but McCain turned that against him well, noting that it was no surprise to HIM.
- Probably no one else noticed this, but when he tried to excuse his failure to hold hearings on Afghanistan (a weakness in itself), he said that’s not the practice on the committee chaired by his veep candidate. That made me fully realize, in a way I hadn’t before, just how upside-down the ticket is in terms of qualifications — the number two guy on the ticket is the number one guy’s CHAIRMAN. If I had been McCain, I might have succumbed to the temptation to point out the irony.
- This is a silly one, but the "professor" was much in evidence in his pedantic insistence on trying to pronounce foreign names and terms the way natives of those countries might, but doing it with such an obvious American accent (the bad guys in Afghanistan were the "Tollybon," said as only an English-shaped tongue could say it). Maybe you couldn’t hear it; it’s something from my childhood when I lived in South America and was bilingual — even though I can hardly speak it now, hearing other gringos try to be SO proper in their pronunciation and fail still grates on my ear.
Yeah, I know — I gave McCain more strengths, and Obama more weaknesses. But each item does not have equal value, and overall, I think they came out even. That’s bad news for McCain, because the subject of most of the debate was his personal area of strength, and he needed to clearly win this one.
I don’t think he did that, but then I can’t speak for all independent voters.