Multiple verdicts emerged from last night’s first presidential debate, depending on what question or questions a given voter had. Overall, the cumulative answers to those questions probably made the debate a draw which is a political win for Obama.
The most important question for Obama to answer was: Is this new guy ready to be president? Verdict: Yes. Obama looked presidential, his answers displayed a wealth of knowledge on a variety of subjects and, more importantly, an ability to weigh the relative importance of discrete pieces of information and craft an overall narrative that voters could understand. His critique of McCain’s stance on Iraq was not only sharp, but showed how the obsession with Iraq had taken our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and other parts of the world.
The most important question for McCain to answer was: Does this guy understand what’s going on with the economy or is he out of touch? Verdict: Still deliberating. McCain conveyed that he was holding his nose on the Wall Street bailout much more effectively than Obama. On the other hand, I am sure that focus groups of unaffiliated voters love McCain’s attack on congressional earmarks, but as Obama pointed out, even if all earmarks were eliminated, the government would save $18 billion. That is a lot of money, but it is dwarfed by the $700 billion the government is committing to the Wall Street Rescue. McCain also has to drop the line "You will know their names" when discussing earmarks. Whose names? Clearly, this was once part of his stump speech but it has become garbled in translation.
The most important question for Jim Lehrer was: How to referee without intruding. Verdict: Flunked. In his effort to get the candidates to speak directly with one another, he sounded like a fifth grade teacher settling a playground fight and made himself, not the candidates, the center of attention. If he had wanted the two to speak directly to each other, that should have been made clear beforehand. If they still insisted on facing him or the audience or the cameras, that is their choice, not his.
What does last night’s debate tell us about their performances in the upcoming debates? Verdict: Everything. Both men had plenty of opportunity to address what all commentators agreed were their core problems. For Obama, he is too cool by half, nothing makes him flustered, voters who want to know he will fight for them see a man who will not fight for anything. For McCain, he needs to show the same passion for pocketbook issues that he does for foreign policy. Neither candidate achieved this. Obama was in command of the issues and of himself but his heart was never on his sleeve. McCain was halting, not particularly coherent when discussing the economy, but became sharper and more engaged when discussing the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He also looked ridiculous delivering applause lines from his stump speech when the audience was not allowed to applaud.
So, while the early polling shows the night a win for Obama, I suspect that candidates who were leaning one way or another found plenty to confirm their lean. There was no single mistake by either that could become a soundbite on Youtube, played over and over again. Obama was Obama. McCain was McCain.
In the grand scheme of the campaign, however, a draw is a big win for Obama. Not only was last night McCain’s last real chance to showcase his foreign policy strong suit, he needed a game changer and he did not get it. Obama, like Ronald Reagan in 1980, just needed to show up and look presidential. That may not sway as many undecided voters his way as it did for Reagan because of lingering racism but I am guessing that it will swing enough of them in the key swing states.
Michael Sean Winters