Thursday, October 16, 2008
The Political Hoedown
The Sit-Down Debate (#3)
Forced to share the a table, John McCain and Barack Obama faced off in an uncaged verbal death match last night at Hofstra University. Moderating was the elderly, but deft Bob Schieffer of CBS, probably the best moderator we've seen this political season. The questions cut to the quick on many issues, were not softballs and prompted intense back-and-forths unlike anything we've seen in the previous 2008 Presidential debates.
Not that it was really that exciting.
Obama still monotoned his way through most answers, sticking to the stump speech talking points, using the phrase "middle class" about as often as he could and, if the opportunity arose, getting in some quick jabs or "nuh uhs!" to block McCain's attacks. On the issues, he was able to give a broad, appealing answer for any Health Care questions without really getting into the nuts and bolts of the matter. It was probably his best response, but certainly he did not show a complete mastery of all domestic matters.
On education, a key issue for any parent or potential parent, he said nothing. Oh, he said a lot of words, but they boiled down to an ignorance of the underlying problems and a desire to increase funding at a federal level without holding states at all accountable for the money they currently spend from their own coffers, much less the federal dollars. When the talk turned to vouchers in District of Columbia public schools, he agreed with McCain that they worked, then said he wanted to move away from them because there weren't enough available.
If something works in a pilot program, you usually expand, rather than eliminate, the specifics of the program. That leap in logic, pretty small, eluded Obama and I'm sure McCain is hoping this resonates particularly with urban parents who see their schools deteriorating and want another option.
Taken overall, it was another bland performance, or as the punditry says, "reassuring." He might be black, in other words, but he's not gonna steal your Jeep's spare tire. Smooth move, media.
But this wasn't about Obama. The last two debates haven't been. He has proven that he can give reasoned answers to questions, regardless of their origin (read: stump speeches), and that he can "look" presidential. It is known he is a good speaker, able to portray his ideas in a way that most can understand, even if nuts-and-bolts workings aren't overtly discussed. He has done very well in these debates, because there wasn't a very high standard he had to reach. Provided he didn't ramble like Kerry or act peevish like Gore or wild-eyed and hostile like Hillary, he had it in the bag.
Could you sit for 90 minutes and act respectable? Exactly. Not a lot of pressure was placed on him to present specifics on all of his plans, how they differ from McCain's (they are both very close on education and energy with only a few, though key, differences), how bipartisan they are or can be. Nor was he really pressed about his past legislative experience. He had to show up, not look like a clown and, three even-if-unexciting debates later, no big shoes or red, honking nose.
For all he was expected to do, McCain both hit the mark and wildly missed it. His two biggest missteps were Health Care and Obama's associations. There are enough circumstantial links between ACORN, Ayers and Obama to keep the latter flummoxed and without enough time to answer everything, but McCain only scratched the surface, trying to keep things above board (as his was considered the more negative campaign going into the debate).
On Health Care, his plan looks more complicated, but below the surface turns out to be a savings for the regular consumer and a "hand up" type proposal; he did not let people know Obama's was more hand out than not, and that simple in appearance, it was a mess when you get into it (a little partisan, I apologize, but I'm very concerned about health care costs long-term). Another prime opportunity to back Obama against the wall and he didn't take it.
True, the format - only 90 minutes with supposedly only 10 minutes per topic - limits the sort of true back-and-forth we need on these issues. For a candidate coming from behind, they either need a stellar quip that rocks their opponent back on their heels, or a mini-speech that effectively outlines a proposal while showing its merits versus the other guy's. McCain constantly needed more time to make his case now that he's realized there are three weeks left, his campaign staff led him astray for months and if he wants to even lose with dignity, he needs to make up at least four points in the polls and about fifty electoral college votes.
Sounds pessimistic, but as I mentioned when talking about Obama, McCain scored big on education. In the past, he's talked about the Department of Education in less-than-fond terms, even supporting its elimination. Right now, states provide the bulk of education funding for their states, though the Federal Government also chips in. A lot of money is thrown at education, but it's inexpertly applied. We're lagging in worldwide education standing because we can't add up the numbers we're spending on it, to paraphrase a joke my wife told me. McCain made it clear that he would aggressively attack education funding to cut the wheat from the chaff, make schools accountable, increase charter schools (which work) and vouchers (which also work, but aren't out of test districts yet). It's classic conservative policy - lean, efficient funding that gets the job done right, instead of a bloated budget (to be increased more under Obama) so big it's bound to hit the right beat every now and again.
And that leads in to McCain's key - and potentially game-changing - victory for the night. Spending & the Government. He emphasized time and again that he was for reduced government spending, spending freezes coupled with a "scrubbing" of every department of government to rid them of waste and lower taxes for everyone. Saying the corporate tax should be lowered was a gamble, and an open invitation to Obama to bring up Exxon and other oil companies that would benefit (McCain never in the debates reminded Americans that more than oil companies are corporations and will benefit from such a cut, as will your pocketbook), but it got the idea out there and gave him another stump speech talking point. Obama repeatedly mentioned that we needed to invest in this or that program, code for increased government spending.
By reigniting, even at this stage, the idea of a tax-and-spend Democrat running deficits up and mortgaging our children's future, McCain can avoid character assassination as the driving strategy. Here, domestically, is where they differ. Can McCain drive that stake into the Obama's campaign and make it stick? That's the big question.
The line that sticks in everyone's mind? John McCain said, "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." It effectively stopped the "Bush III" or Bush/McCain bit Obama's been throwing around, and opened the door for McCain to attack Obama on never opposing his party (to which Barack failed utterly to present a time he did think for himself. The tort reform bill? 40% of Senate Democrats supported it. Hardly breaking with your party).
Does the winning sound bite mean he won? For that accurate hit that line landed, it did not make up for Obama's measured, cool, almost detached approach to answering questions. McCain was hopped up on crack for most of last night, full of energy, overflowing with talking points, righteous indignation and hope for victory. It, unfortunately, did not come through that way in the split screen, the big judge of debater's success, i.e. reaction shots.
So I can't say that McCain won based on his performance. Reading the transcript, I can't honestly say Obama won, since he repeated himself for the third time in a row. No change, no deviation, no off-the-cuff explanations of programs. Even McCain's answers seem run through with too much excitement, throwing him off track at times. He dominated for a third, went off the rails and missed opportunities, but then came back to finish strong. I think it was his best showing. Obama's best was last week, and here he appeared peevish, annoyed that he had to sit next to this old coot, and uninterested in really diving into the discussion. But he also appeared more focused for the balance of the night, and that might have won him the election right there.
Obama and McCain have been campaigning since early 2007 at this point. We know where they stand and the depth of their stances. By now, if you don't know a particular policy - unrelated to the bailout or economic correction/crisis/collapse - that's not the candidate's fault. Through writing, speeches, debates and surrogate interviews they have articulated exactly what they think about taxes, health care, Iraq, Iran, education, abortion, etc.
Last night's debate reminded us that for the first half of 2007 and 2008, John McCain led in national head-to-head polls. He's passionate, driven, focused on reform in government and changing course from what was promised in the Bush Administration to what we ended up with. Yesterday we also understood, yet again, why Barack Obama is a Democratic golden child, a leader and mouthpiece for his party, the true victor of the primaries and the driving force behind every political discussion in the latter half of the year.
Who is John McCain? Who is Barack Obama? What do they stand for and do I know more last night than I did yesterday morning?
I hope the debate came close to answering those questions. It was important, somewhat boring at times yet crackling with electricity at others.
We vote two weeks from next Tuesday. Not much time to make up your minds. We will be presenting cases for and against each candidates to help you if you're on the fence or give you talking points if you're not.
If you want to participate, send me an e-mail at email@example.com or, if you're on the distribution list, reply and let me know what you think.
A bit of humor: when interacting with the crowd at the end, McCain sort of waved his hands at one guy and did a little Gene Simmons' impression, over and done in a second. Well, someone had their camera ready:
God bless him, but that is not a flattering picture.
But Obama has looked...goofy, to say the least, including in this shot, at the first really featuring Joe Biden:
I don't know what to say that wouldn't be offensive. I...guess that means I'm going to hell.