Tonight’s presidential debate was McCain’s to lose, and for a while it looked as though he might not even show up. As the key topic was foreign policy, many commentators felt that Obama needed merely to demonstrate that he could hold his ground against an elder statesman. As the debate unfolded, it became clear that McCain did not “lose”. Indeed, he appeared to have a greater command of the room when the subject switched to foreign policy. McCain did, however, appear very much out of his element, and indeed nervous, during the discussion of the economy and the banking industry bailout. Obama, on the other hand, had his stride and demonstrated a striking command of the economic issues, but fell to a defensive posture when the subject switched to foreign policy.
As the economy is central on Americans’ minds right now, I would have liked a discussion of what, specifically, each candidate planned to do to drive us out of this crisis. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that question was asked. Instead, the question raised was what campaign proposals each candidate felt would have to be delayed as a result of the bailout. When neither Obama nor McCain expressed willingness to answer that question, both candidates were essentially asked what aspects of the federal budget would have to be altered in the wake of the bailout. McCain, visibly reaching for something to say, threw out a now characteristic Hail Mary pass and called for a federal spending freeze. Obama captured what was perhaps his second best sound bite of the evening with the response “The problem with a spending freeze is you’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel.” Obama went on to explain that cutting funding to early childhood education and Medicare would not make sense.
As the discussion switched to foreign policy, the themes of both candidates became clear. Unfortunately, I think McCain hit his theme more clearly and more forcefully, continuously returning to the phrase “Obama doesn’t understand.” Obama, on the other hand, continuously said “John’s absolutely right.” When you compare those two sound bites, the cut-and-paste replay does not bode very well for Obama. In fact, if you judge the victor by who has the most sound bites, McCain certainly walked away victorious. Aside from the “Obama doesn’t understand” sound bite, McCain, after endlessly pointing out the stamps on his passport and the foreign leaders on his vita, said he doesn’t need “on the job training.” At one point, in discussing the troop surge in Iraq, McCain said “Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.” Obama’s response to this sound bite was probably his only sound bite-worthy response to a sound bite. “I absolutely understand the difference between tactics and a strategy. And the strategic question that the president has to ask is not whether or not we are employing a particular approach in the country once we have made the decision to be there. The question is, was this wise?”
To his credit, Obama continuously engaged the television audience more; and he hammered McCain on the Iraq issue, looking him squarely in the eye and saying “John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong.” Obama went on to tie those bad calls into overall questions of McCain’s judgment (Obama’s theme).
McCain, however, by commanding the discussion during much of the debate and striking the “understanding” sound bite repeatedly, provided the phrase that will stick in viewers’ minds after the debate. Some viewers will remember the countless times McCain said “Obama doesn’t understand” more than they will remember Obama’s demonstrations of the fact that his “understanding” was better than McCain’s. How viewers will interpret that phrase (i.e., whether they will view it as condescending or as correct) remains to be seen, but the phrase is out there and Obama, perhaps for strategic reasons, did not address it head on.
McCain definitely showed up, in more ways than one. And he commanded the discussion and developed his one theme quite forcefully, delivering I think the most sound bites. Obama held his own, and lived up to expectations in that regard. Whether voters will be more swayed by Obama’s overall temperament and thoughtful, deferential (“John’s absolutely right”) manner, together with his intricate – though too wordy for sound bites – understanding of foreign policy issues, or by McCain’s forcefulness and his drill down of the “he doesn’t understand theme” remains to be seen.