For what it’s worth


… I thought McCain won last night’s presidential debate. Not that he won the argument, you understand — I thought Obama had the better of him on that score — but these things rarely turn on the underlying arguments, and more on how the candidates presented themselves. And on these personal qualities, I thought McCain did his cause more good than Obama did. He was warm, passionate, funny, and combative, well-stocked with folksy anecdotes, often putting Obama on the defensive. He was also exasperating, frequently running roughshod over the moderator, Jim Lehrer and generally seeing how much he could get away with.

By contrast, Obama was cool, analytical, polite — all qualities I admire, but perhaps less likely to impress the viewing audience. I hate myself for marking him down for this, but the usual way in which the political pros coach their charges to respond to attacks is to attack back — which of course does nothing but drag the proceedings further down in the muck. Instead, Obama found himself all too often explaining why McCain’s latest salvo was off-base, which he generally did a good job of, but at the expense of using up precious time he might have preferred to spend making his own points.

But overall I came away from the debates with heightened respect for both men. I’d be comfortable with either man in the White House — vice-presidential choices aside. And the debate itself was exemplary — substantive without being stuffy, feisty without being a mudwrestle. There are real differences of policy between these two candidates — over taxes, over health care, over Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran — and they were usefully explored. The section on how to deal with the financial crisis was less helpful, but it was tacked on at the last minute in what was supposed to be a foreign-policy debate; presumably both candidates will have a better handle on the situation by the time they debate the economy.

Obama had more to lose, as the frontrunner, and did himself no harm. But McCain, who’d had a terrible couple of weeks leading into the debate, may just have put himself back in the game.


For what it’s worth

  1. I would agree that McCain “won” the debate. I have to say that if I were an American, I would vote for McCain. He’s more centrist and hasn’t been calling for removing “tax advantages” for the rich. The rich, unless I am mistaken, pay most of the taxes, anyway. As for the Veep consideration, and in spite of the very goofy interview between Palin and Couric, two things: 1) McCain’s parents (or at least one) in his or her mid-90s. He may have a long life gene. 2) And, going back to Truman, for example,(who was regarded as a country hick at the time), Veeps seem to rise to the occasion.

  2. “but these things rarely turn on the underlying arguments, and more on how the candidates presented themselves.”

    How about we stop calling them “debates,” then?

  3. In my book McCain came out the winner last night. He had substantive comments and Obama looked “pissed” most of the time and came across as defensive. He just does not have the experience and he is essentially a socialist who plays the Robin Hood game of “I will get money from those ‘bad’ rich people and give it to you ‘poor folk.’ Shame on him for that.

  4. These evaluations are less objective than a Miss American swim-suit competition. Which is what these “debates” might as well be.

  5. You win the Friday night debate on Sunday morning…Obama’s brand isn’t about counter-attacks, it’s about keeping the focus on the big questions, which he did – so not attacking shouldn’t hurt him.

    Immediate post-debate commentary over McCain’s demeanour didn’t describe him as “folksy” – it was a debate over whether he was contemptuous of Obama or ashamed of himself. On the issues, McCain came across as a 26-year veteran of the Senate, obsessed over relatively minor details and completely unable to grasp the bigger, strategic picture ($18B in earmarks v. $300B in useless tax cuts; the surge v. keeping America safe). Biden gave a good summing up of McCain – “John, the surge is over. What are you going to do now?”. If commentators see McCain as an ashamed, petty man mired in the past, McCain loses. If they decide McCain’s distortions, contempt and trivial concerns put Obama on the defensive, he wins.

  6. I know McCain won and is still winning today because he went to work at the job people voted and put him in office for and Obama is more interested in himself than doing the job he was voted to office to do is this what he would do if by some small feet he were to become President, other things would be more important.
    Obama is so criticle of others he can not see his own mistaked and I would not trust Obama to be in charge of the money in the US he may spend it all too freely.
    Obama must have missed 9-11

  7. I see some people are still having problems with basic accounting.

    No wonder the right wing breaks the bank, every time.

  8. Breathe, Sharon, breathe…

  9. Interesting then that every major tracking poll done after the debate shows that independents and undecideds broke heavily for Obama when asked who won the debate.

    Why? Because they thought McCain was being condescending toward Obama — the not looking at him the entire debate has gotten big play today.

  10. I thought McCain won the debate handily.

    Polls seem to say otherwise.

    I thought McCain bombed his convention speech.

    Polls said otherwise.


    Apparently, I can’t read John McCain the way the general public does.

  11. But we’ll know how it really went in the public’s eyes by Tuesday, when the first tracking polls with pure post-debate sampling are available.

  12. I thought it was tie. But because Obama, as a newcomer, is still fighting to define his image, I think he probably gained 5 points just by not talking jive and showing up in a turban. (So articulate. And clean!)

    If the polls say Obama won I think it’s because the McCain campaign actually succeeded in lowering expectations on Obama. They spent a month on the “celebrity” attacks, implying he had no substance, and then wheeled out Palin and insisted she was equivalent or better in terms of qualifications.

    So after a summer of attacks and being painted as an empty suit, out walks this calm, cool, intelligent, qualified, presidential guy. And a geezer.

    When you’re expecting a Sarah Palin and you get a Barack Obama instead, it’s a pleasant surprise.

  13. Well, actually Obama won, because in almost all polling, independent voters said he won, and regardless of what pundits or highly engaged followers of politics think, that’s what matters. FWIW, a lot of even liberal-leaning blogs awarded a narrow win to McCain or called it a tie – observers who gave it to Obama were trying very hard to see it through the lenses of independent voters, like 538.com or Halperin.

    The US electorate is at a peak of partisan division, so people who are motivated by emotion and “passion” are already in the bases. Independents in this cycle tend to be more in favor of bipartisanship, calm and analytical debating, etc. The “hot” political cultures of the South and Northeast have already decided in large part – the swing states like Michigan and Minnesota have “colder” political cultures. They’re looking for someone who can project competence and confidence, and that’s what Obama did on Friday. McCain seeming surly and upset only helped make the contrast with Obama’s demeanor more significant.

    There’s also a racist expectation at work – people think of black politicians as being about eloquent, fiery speeches. So when Obama plays a contrast to that, he wins, because people see him as being more highly dimensional. In fact, I bet such people actually see Obama as *more* fiery than he actually is. It’s telling that in a Fox News panel of voters, they wanted *more* emotion from McCain. Since a lot of us have been following Obama for a while, we see him as a cooler and calmer guy than other people do.

  14. Most people who think national security/defence is the number one issue will vote repub no matter who the candidates are. I think Obama ‘won’ this debate because he didn’t come across as a pacifist, though I have my suspicions.

    I, too, thought Obama made a mistake in not attacking more. Candidates are either on the offense or defense and when you are explaining yourself, instead of making wild accusations against your opponent, you’re on your back foot and losing.

    I was kinda hoping McCain would break out into karaoke again and sing about who he was going to bomb.

  15. This should be conventional post-debate analysis: “if you’re not making wild accusations against your opponent, you”re…losing”. That would definitely make debates more amusing to watch.

  16. Am I only one who found it insufferable watching those two compare fallen soldier bracelets?

  17. Ben: no you weren’t.

  18. Interesting that that was your reaction, Mr. Coyne. My guess is that anyone who had major doubts about the presidentiality of either candidate was reassured. As you probably perceived McCain as a bumbling, mumbling piŋata of a man beforehand – you are shrewd, after all – it will have reassured you to see that he is not actually senile. But most American voters will have had the opposite reaction for the same reasons: they’ve been much exposed to McCain as a cable news commenter for the last 8 years, while Obama has remained suprisingly unknown. Thus I think they felt reassured by Obama’s blandness, as you were by McCain’s.

  19. Given the paucity of direct engagement between the two over a two hour period, it gives the lie to those who think the Canadian leader debates will be poor simply because of the number of those involved.

    The gamesmanship and tiptoeing around the issue of the bailout will have offended many Americans for whom this issue is currently number one on their priority list. This might suit McCain because he doesn’t want to talk about the economy anyway, but Obama should have been bolder, not from the perspective of Congress but from what Bush should have required of Paulson rather than demanding the cheque book for Paulson’s unlimited discretion.

  20. If I was voting in the U.S. election and leaning toward McCain, I would just picture Palin as a president of the United States and that would instantly change my mind. This has a good chance of happening and would be a tragedy for the U.S. and for the world.

  21. Hmmm, McCain not getting elected becomes a tragedy for the US and the world? That seems like a stretch. It might be a tragedy for some folks in the US, but not for most other inhabitants of the world.

  22. If you have done any honest research on Obama I don`t know how you could say you found respect for him no matter what he said in the so called debate. That you say that he would be acceptable as the president of the USA totally blows me away. The financial crises that the world is going to feel because of what is going on in the states today is entirely because of politicians like him. I am very disappointed that you would have this view.

  23. All I really took from the debate is that pundits on both sides expected McCain’s tactics to play well with undecided voters, and that pundits on both sides were wrong.

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