Politics & Media
Sep 29, 2008, 06:29AM

A Boring Debate for a Crazy Campaign

Generally, Obama seems the clear winner, but with over a month to go, this election could go anywhere.

Debate.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Copyright AP.

Live-blogging Friday night’s debate turned out to be an immensely stressful experience. Apologies to my compatriots (and the commenters) aside, the attempt to crunch as many possible talking points as possible lent itself to a higher heart rate and the tendency to testily ignore a few questions from my less-politically-manic-than-me friends.

The candidates hit the ground running with the economic crisis, and for the most part the debate didn’t lose steam, though at times this momentum bottlenecked over semantics and dead end points, such as figuring out What Would Kissinger Do and subcommittee prattling.

Given McCain’s theatrical posturing over the past couple of day—the suspension that wasn’t, the empty-suit histrionics in Washington—he was on target throughout the entire affair. He’s a good debater. But in terms of format, the economic crisis cut halfway into what should have been 90 minutes of foreign policy debate, McCain’s assumed bread and butter. Despite withering and unceasing condescension from McCain, Obama handled his opponent well:

And so John likes—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.

McCain’s best line might have come in the form of cutting defense spending:

I think that we have to return—particularly in defense spending, which is the largest part of our appropriations—we have to do away with cost-plus contracts. We now have defense systems that the costs are completely out of control.

Getting tough on military spending looks good on McCain. He didn’t mention the $10 billion/month Iraq bill, but he implied it could be partially offset. His point might have gone unnoticed, since spending cuts (and even a spending freeze) was his only concrete response to questions on the economy.

As Fred Kaplan wrote for Slate, “Scored on debaters' points, the match was close. Judged on the substantive issues, especially on which candidate has the more realistic view of the world, Obama won hands down.”

There isn’t a whole lot of consensus in terms of Who Won. Polls from ABC and USA Today/Gallup gave it to Obama; Dickerson called it a tie; Joe Klein, Obama; Roger Simon, McCain; Ignatius mirrors Kaplan.

Overall, I’d say Obama “won” and qualify that with one of politics’ perennial, vague adverbs: slightly, barely, marginally. And right now every wants numbers. By how much did he win?

The debate did not feature any memorable one-liners or gaffes. It was substantive, and the division over the mantle of victory reflects that reality. I preferred the occasional slowing of pace, and Jim Lehrer was, by and large, a terrific moderator. He gave the candidates the space to stretch out and attempted to get them talk to each other. The issues were obvious: What do you think of the bailout plan? How will a $700 billion check affect your economic plan? What are you going to do with Iran?

Both candidates followed their scripts point for point. But while Obama’s lectern style was not as intense as it can be, McCain relied on condescension in an attempt to out-attitude Obama. And that might hurt him in the long run. The mainstream media, which is about as reliable as an August poll, is starting to rally against the chaos running through the McCain camp. He is losing media favor quicker than polling points.

It’s okay that we don’t have a definitive winner. For all the post-debate chatter, there was little hype leading into Friday night. Attention was, understandably, focused on the economy. But the expectations surrounding the vice presidential debate this Thursday has been simmering since Sarah Palin joined McCain’s ticket. Both VP picks have made a slew of gaffes in a short amount of time. Biden criticized an Obama ad, messed up a coal talking point and said FDR addressed the Depression via television in 1929. Palin’s interview with Charles Gibson was bad, if not cataclysmically so. But when she sat down with Katie Couric she was demonstrably worse. Her responses were scattered at best and completely incomprehensible at worse (and I doubt she’ll pull a Michigan).

Pundits are salivating over this one. There will surely be a “winner” and “loser,” though our hypersensitivity toward perceived bullying, victimhood and sexism hangs as high over Joe Biden as the Angry Black Man stereotype hangs over Barack Obama. As a rule, vice presidential debates never really count for much, but given the tenor of this campaign cycle Biden and Palin seem to be at the brink of affecting poll numbers in a way a top-of-the-ticket, nuanced and boring debate can’t. And that’s a shame.


Register or Login to leave a comment