Presidential Debate #2: Obama Wins

“Did McCain give voters who are undecided or leaning to Obama any reason to vote for McCain? Did McCain give his supporters any cause to be enthusiastic about him? Did McCain open up any lines of attack that he can develop in the remaining weeks? Did McCain give anyone any desire to watch next week’s debate? The answer to all these questions, I think, is clearly no. So McCain’s performance was a dismal failure.”

– Ed Whelan, National Review Online (10-8-08)

Last night’s Presidential Debate had to be the worst presidential debate I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. Moderator Tom Brokaw lost control at the outset & seemed more interested in being avuncular before a national audience than he was in doing his job as moderator. Squabbling with Brokaw reduced the stature of both candidates too. The audience themselves (with brief exceptions) came off as reigned in & the tightly scripted control over the “Town Hall Meeting” format robbed said format of its best features (e.g. spontanaiety, unpredictablity, & genuine give & take between candidate(s) & audience members).

I was going to do a question-to-question analysis on this debate as I had done on their last debate but jettisoned the idea halfway through this snooze fest. Both candidates were on autopilot & stuck to their talking points (which at times became long-winded). While neither McCain nor Obama uttered a serious gaffe or suffered a serious misstep, both candidates failed to deliver a performance that would elevate their respective candidacies & position one ahead of the other on the road to the White House.

McCain needed a gamechanger & failed to achieve it. He looked old, at times appeared distracted, & the format as constructed last night emphasized the infirmaties of both his age & his old war wounds. While McCain’s body language with respect to Obama was better than in the first debate, the non-verbal communication of McCain still exhibited a certain discomfort if not outright hostility to his Democrat opponent that non-partisan voters would find offputting (especially unenrolleds in battleground states).

McCain’s comments seemed disconnected from each other & at times contradicted each other. On the one hand he wants to attack earmarks & freeze federal spending but then he offers a proposal of $300 billion dollars to bail out failed mortgage holders. WHAT? How can you advertise yourself as the agent of change when you propose the usual bailout bullshit that fails to address the underlying ideological foundation of the problem? Having solidified his conservative base through the selection of Sarah Palin, McCain threatened to see said base fragment by proposing an idea many economic conservatives would find abhorent. McCain also failed to rebuke Obama’s charges that McCain was linked to Bush or that McCain’s application of Reaganism (i.e. deregulation) contributed to the nation’s current financial crisis.

Most of the time, McCain relied on his talking points & bits of his biography but he failed to make the case against Obama in a consistent fashion & he never offered a coherent narrative that would propel him forward in the eyes of the voters. Even his “hair” joke fell flat. Once one got past the platitudes McCain offered the American people about themselves or him bragging about past achievements, one heard very little about what constitutes McCain’s vision, how it differs from Bush & Obama, or the practical application of said vision (& how it comports with a post-Reagan view of the world yet at the same time remains a legitimate development in America’s conservative philosophy as encapsulated by The Gipper himself).

And Obama? Stylistically he was smooth, elegant, relaxed, charming, & intelligent. Obama did what he was supposed to do: make Americans comfortable with him as their next Commander-in-Chief. Although the Town Hall meeting debate format was considered McCain’s strength, Obama handled himself well.

Obama was persistent in linking McCain to Bush no matter how much of a stretch it was. While I never bought it, McCain’s refusal to seriously challenge the premise of Obama’s charge meant that an aspect of said charge would probably stick to McCain in the eyes of some voters & assume the patina of truth. Obama showed chutzpah when at one point he basically said as president he’d invade Pakistan & denied he said it (only that he’d “act” on “actionable intelligence”). In essence, Obama asked the audience if they believed him or their own ears when it came to handling potential problems in Pakistan. Like McCain, Obama failed to offer a compelling vision of the future beyond the mantra of “change” but the answers he offered gave the illusion of comprehensiveness (as opposed to McCain’s segmented sound bites). He made no bones about his socialistic orientation (for example, health care as a “right” hints at socialized medicine) & made a “moralistic” argument for US humanitarian interventions across the globe in spite of the fact that said arguments eerily echo the essence of “compassionate conservatism”.

The essence of Obama’s performance was captured in one of his statements: “A lot of you remember the tragedy of 9/11”. The attack against America was an act of war – not a tragedy. Yet this aspect of Obama’s mindset was never challenged by McCain. Obama stuck to his campaign formula & was allowed by McCain to go through the debate relatively unscathed. Meanwhile McCain failed to challenge Obama’s essential ideology, failed to adequately defend his own ideology (if not that of his party), & failed to offer to the voters the practical vision they desire in a leader whom they know will face tremendous challenges in the years ahead. There’s only one debate left before the election. McCain MUST win it. If he fails to do so & fails to shift the dynamics of the race, America will find itself governed by “The One.”

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