October 17, 2008

Obama v. McCain Round III Reflections

McCain lost this debate decisively, and for the first time, I think Obama clearly won it. Debate #1, Obama held his own, got it called a draw and that equated to a win. Debate #2, a shaky performance but no lost ground, again ruled a draw and equates to a win in effect for Obama. This time, he actually won the debate.

Why did he win? Because he for the most part gave coherent answers that would appeal to moderates and independents, as well as his democratic base.

McCain the entire night delivered attacks against Obama that are red meat for the conservative base, but will not snag independents and moderates. All night long, I felt like he was talking in base shorthand.

I actually thought Obama was baiting him, enticing him to bring the Ayers attack, which McCain took forever to get to even when the moderator offered up the opportunity with his opening question. When he finally did get to it, it was clumsily executed, as were many of the hits.

People want to hear the parameters of the candidates policies, not just the ideological engine that drives them. McCain’s centerpiece on education for example; Vouchers, a reasonable enough and reliable tried and true republican, conservative idea on addressing failing public school systems. In my own opinion, its a half measure, and the truly effective, conservative policy approach was actually championed by….Obama! in the form of charter schools (competition, accountability). McCain tossed them out as an aside, Obama elaborated on that a bit. On healthcare, Obama spent more time explaining McCain’s plan than McCain did.

On many points, McCain enthusiastically extolled the conservative ideological point of view, but almost always expressed in base shorthand, easily understandable to the likes of conservatives, but not nearly explanatory enough for moderates and independents who are not of the same bent and want some elaboration.

The “I’m not Bush” line was great. Too little, and way too late. The Ayers and Acorn attacks, delivered in base shorthand, no detail, no narrative, clumsy, lacked impact (for the base, moments to cheer maybe, but not for anybody else).

Demeanor wise, McCain seemed agitated and tight and once or twice annoyingly snarky. Obama seemed calm, loose, prepared and was not shaken much out of that the whole night.

While McCain had more energy in this debate, he communicated in way too much base shorthand and he devoted too much time to attack angles that don’t net independents and moderates. When he was not making that mistake, he was at several points totally squandering attack lines or pivoting from one subject to the attack in very clumsy ways that robbed several attacks of their force and made him appear, dare I say it…wait for it, wait….erratic.

Another dynamic which I don’t think helps him in how he comes across is that he doesn’t like Obama and believes him to be an upstart, untested pup and poseur who has the audacity to offer himself in opposition to McCain as though he were an equal (I suspect Hillary felt the same). That feeling is there and it colors the way McCain debates Obama and causes him to be dismissive of Obama’s rebuttals in a shorthand way, instead of absorbing them and then systematically dismantling his arguments. He doesn’t think he should have to. The problem is, he does, because the base accepts the shorthand explanations, moderates and independents don’t and he can’t win with the base alone.

A better performance for McCain. Problem was, Obama brought his best debate game tonight and if Obama’s lackluster performance in debates #1 and #2 were regarded as Obama wins based on the polling afterwards, I predict this one will poll as an Obama blowout over the next several days.