Friday, September 26, 2008

TPH: Just Answer the Question

The Political Hoedown
The First Debate; Biden Off the Ticket?!

Since we last met, Gov. Sarah Palin has spoken with the media, Biden has goofed his way around the campaign, Obama has come out against his running mate and McCain whiplashed them all by suspending his campaign.

Debates, Gaffes, Stunts, Mean-Spiritedness: now we've got an American election. With the economy dominated everyone's mind, the candidates took to the stage Friday night for a foreign policy discussion. In the weeks before, the government bailout of failing financial markets was the big bit of news, but beneath it all, the nitty gritty of election politics continued.

Busy times, people!

But, to start, we need to address that debate.


Hosted at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS, the first Presidential debate was moderated by PBS’ Jim Lehrer and was intended to focus on foreign policy issues. Of course, due to extraordinary circumstance, it did not. In fact, a good third of the debate time was given over to economy-related issues and those touching the government bailout package.

The point of this recap is not to recite each candidate’s answers to the questions posed. We know, in general, their positions. Obama has a tax cut plan that benefits - from an income tax perspective - most taxpayers. McCain favors tax cuts that affect all, but still include cuts for the (controversial) wealthiest among us. He also proposes a focused "league of democracies" that cold wield significant economic and diplomatic might when facing rogue nations. Obama is more satisfied with the UN and NATO, but seeks the same goal. They each want to spend, to cut, to alter the game plan for our military in different ways.

These are policy topics. While we did watch the debate to get reacquainted with their policy, we also needed to become acquainted with them. So let’s look at them, their appearance and mannerisms, the amount of respect they showed for their opponent and Jim Lehrer, the tone and phrasing of their responses and the personal qualities that shine through in such a magnifying-glass experience that indicate their presidential mindset.


We will start with Sen. Barack Obama.

As has been mentioned to me this past week, he has greyed a lot since this campaign started. His youthful looks are giving way to a creased face and whitening hair. I heard a (somewhat ridiculous) rumor that there was no effort made to disguise the grey to make him appear more experienced, as age adds wisdom. Image is the least important thing, but it pays to keep it in mind.

More so than McCain, Obama has had a great deal more recent experience debating and bandying about sound bites. As a great public speaker, and someone with a legal background, he understands the framing of a response and the body language required to connect to an audience. Not that McCain doesn’t, but his focus in life has been far less on speeches.

Points to Obama for the businessman-like movements and gestures, making us thing of a boardroom meeting, or failing that a closed-room hearing.

So that nonsense aside, how did he do?

His responses were well-thought out, heavy on stump speech themes and lines, but structured in such a way to forget he’s given all these responses before as part of larger speeches. He helped this by using the point system. "There are X things we need to do. Number 1...." It provides internal and external focus, allowing you the debater the luxury of a list-like framework to work in and the audience an easy-to-follow set of ideas.

Also more lawyerly was his tendency to be curt, to have "just one more point" to make, as well as the old mainstay, the objection. During the debate, Obama was far more likely to interrupt either Lehrer or McCain to get a word in. We know McCain has a temper, but I think we saw Obama has one, too. While he would laugh off some statements McCain made, he would also directly (forcefully? Angrily?) attempt to rebut what he saw as a distortion or lie.

When it came to answering questions, when it comes time for any presidential debater to answer questions, there is a certain amount of evasion. Pin yourself down with a hard statement and it’ll stick with you if proven wrong, folly or inadequate. Changing a position after a debate is a deathknell for a campaign. Faced with the question about what proposals he would cut from his budget to make room for the Wall Street Bailout package, Obama said it was hard to know since there isn’t a budget to judge the impact on, but he would still want to emphasize health care, education, alternative fuels, etc. Basically, he gave no answer but read a few bullet points from his website. This tactic did repeat itself, answering by diversion when he didn’t want to become stuck by a hastily stated position that he might not really believe in.

On foreign experience, Obama proved he knows the names, situations, requirements and key areas of long-term importance. I don’t think anyone will say he came off as unknowledgeable about issues beyond our borders. Do you agree? That is policy again. Save it for a true commentary.

The biggest criticisms I’d level at Obama would be his Kerry-like droning at times, rambling on, and the preference for saying "Senator McCain is right..." too many times. It hurts him to agree so much with his opponent, and he did. If he agrees with so many points, is there really a change we can believe in? Conservatives will hammer home on Obama’s playing up, inadvertently, McCain’s experience and skill with affairs of state.

Also, lest I forget, after McCain talked about Obama’s lack of field experience related to his foreign relations subcommittee, Obama referred to Sen. Joe Biden and his experience, like he could leach off of it and absorb three decades+ foreign and domestic policy experience. Big gaffe, exposing your crushing lack of governmental experience.

But he did do a lot right. His responses were clear and articulate, his presentation very professional, his eye contact maybe 65% of the time with the camera and not Lehrer or McCain. He made his stutters sound like thought-gathering moments, a tough thing to do. Showing an aggressive streak will probably help prove he has a backbone and can stand up to someone other than a middle-aged woman.


Across the aisle, to Sen. John McCain.

He looked old, but not decrepit. I think the boost in the polls the first half of the month did much to add vigor to him physiologically and not just mentally. He wasn’t Bob Dole up there, some old fuddy duddy best suited to retirement home living on Boca Raton. There was energy in those eyes, and silver on his tongue.

Unlike Obama, he did not have the best movements, but this isn’t his fault. As he cannot raise his arms past a certain height, it becomes hard to avoid looking like your suit doesn’t’ fit. The timbre of his voice, at the beginning, was also very somber, almost like he was speaking to a group of librarians. He got fired up and more commanding in tone as the evening went on.

Did that fire result in a victory?

I cannot, even as a Republican, say he hit it out of the park. His weakness on economic issues, or his unwillingness to defend certain areas of his tax plan (corporate cuts help every corporation, oil related or not), made the first few responses a little muddied. As he got into cutting wasteful spending, he developed better and his best moment regarding the economy was when asked that question about what he’d give up to accommodate the bailout: departments of the government. Basically, he’d audit the government, find the waste, and trim it to save money. "Scrub every agency of government," was the line, more/less.

This points to a difference in debate style. Obama was able to quite easily turn a question to a platform for another, vaguely related issue. McCain stuck, on the whole, to the question asked; he evaded some, but that wasn’t a great fault of his. His problems came in the force of his tone. We know he can holler, can pound a podium and raise his voice. It just took him 30 minutes to remember.

While Obama projected businessman or lawyer, McCain was the old general called back to action. He’d seen the battlefield, knew what had to be done and was here to tell us, to deliver a moral at times, a parable or story when appropriate. It wasn’t the ramble of a Grandpa in a rocking chair, but the burden of experience coming out. You could tell the weight of decades of public service has shaped McCain into more than just another Senator.

He hammered home on his record, how he has a record, to look at the record. Obama seldom tried, and mostly failed, to say how some parts of McCain’s record were shoddy or overly partisan, but with 26 years on Capitol Hill, there are bound to be highs and lows. McCain’s best defense was to highlight Obama’s slim record: when discussing the economy, to remind people of the nearly $1 billion in earmarks he requested over his first three years in the Senate; on foreign policy, bring up Obama’s continual opposition to the surge in Iraq.

To compliment the disastrous phrase, "Senator McCain was/is right," McCain made sure to say that "Senator Obama is (still) mistaken/wrong/na├»ve," bringing the experience issue to light, undercutting Obama’s foundation without being overly snarky.

But McCain wasn’t perfect. As I said, his speaking voice cost him early on. He also didn’t use that temper to highlight how he was mad about mistakes made in the Administration. He should’ve practiced his gestures a little more to refine his appearance and he should not have repeated the phrase, "but most importantly" before every point. It diminishes what came before.

That said, he hammered out his views on the economy, pork barrel spending, and foreign policy. Repetition is key to votes in November, letting people know consistently where you stand. He also was able to draw on decades of foreign policy experience in the field to show he not only could point to Afghanistan on a map, but the towns he stayed in on his trips, show from a military standpoint how you needed to move personnel, recall the military and sometimes political history of a certain region and it’s bearing on today’s issues. Ready from Day 1 is a rallying cry in the McCain camp, and he went a long way to proving why.


So who came out ahead? Neither won, that’s for sure. Reading through the transcript, I’ve found great lines for both, and they really do read well. Were you deaf, and had to rely on a transcript, I’d say McCain comes off better, since the words and ideas are there, even if the dynamite oratory isn’t. But we judge this as an audible and viewable event, not a series of notes passed in class.

Did McCain’s longer sentences draw you into the narrative he built? Did the staccato phrasing of Obama keep your attention from short sentence to short sentence (and yes, you can ramble still with enough short sentences...)?

Before you assign victory, read the transcript, available at every news site. See the differences in opinion that are baldly apparent. Ideologically, many of you have made up your minds, or are voting a party line because it is what’s expected of you from some quarter of your life. But try to examine the issues through the focused lens of these two candidates’ measured responses. Ask yourself how you’d react and respond to the questions and crises.

A day later, the press says McCain turned in a slightly better performance, that technically he did do a better job. Again, reading the comments gives that impression, too. He avoided what historian James Chace says is a preference of politicians to value "repetition, vagueness and incantation," a great way to describe Obama’s rhetoric throughout this whole campaign. However, Obama looked better than McCain, crisper, younger. Nixon won his debate with Kennedy intellectually, but lost it in the court of visual opinion. I think similar will be said for McCain.

We have three more debates, one for the next three weeks. Plenty of opportunity to judge ideas, character and what is best for the country.


To quell some rumors, I’d like to talk about Joe Biden. There has been some talk that his gaffes of late, numerous and humorous, are on purpose and meant to set up an 11th hour removal from the ticket with Hillary taking his place. I do not find any credibility to this theory. The last time we saw this take place, in 1972 when Thomas Eagleton was replaced as George McGovern’s VP candidate after some embarrassing psychological details came to light, it ended in disaster for the presidential candidate. No one has convinced me this is any different.

People talk about Sarah Palin and then the return to Washington amid the bailout bill talks as Hail Mary passes on McCain’s part, but were Obama to boot Biden now and bring in Hillary, you’d see mounds of criticism bury the freshman IL senator for his poor judgment in picking a VP and pandering by choosing Hillary.

For your reference, Biden’s gaffes:

*Said Hillary would’ve been a better VP candidate than him
*Came out strongly against the Wall Street bailout package before Obama said word one and was later criticized by Obama for doing so
*Claimed Barack "ain’t taking my shotguns," highlighting further differences in policy on the ticket
*Said that FDR went on TV when the Great Depression hit to tell America what was going on: "When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on television and didn’t just talk about the ‘princes of greed,’ he said look, here’s what happened."


This has been a pretty long Hoedown, so I’m splitting it in two and moving the poll analysis and Bailout Bill discussion to the next post. Look for it Monday evening.



Adam said...

I'm impressed by the fairly even-handed analysis. I'd expected a much larger McCain bias from the Hoopster.

How's this for a wacky theory regarding Biden's gaffes? Given Palin's foibles in dealing with the press, Joe's pulling a rope-a-dope: He's presenting himself in this manner to lower expectations, only to come back with a tremendous offensive against Palin in the VP debate. I don't know if Joe's that clever or not, but it would be an interesting tactic.

drillbaby said...

Very thorough analysis of performance. I'm still waiting for any candidate to tell me why we're considering a "bail out" when home prices are high and unemployment is at a low 6%. Any answers?

The Den of Mystery said...


I will address that in the next Hoedown, when I talk about the bailout. There is a sound financial (as well as an unsound psychological) reason.


Anonymous said...


Home prices might be high, but the trend is dramatically down, California down 41% yoy in August.

A bailout is being considered to keep unemployment a "low 6%". Current levels of credit destruction, if left on their own will rapidly bring our credit based economy to a grinding halt, and begin to claim more than just banks, but their corportate customers as well. Some perfectly sound business will fail, because they couldn't finance payroll, (pending receivables) for a week or two. If every economic transaction had to be cash on the barrelhead, look out. Buy your ammo now, you're gonna need it. Both to defend yourself and for subsistance hunting.