Due to a hectic schedule over the past week, I was unable to put down my thoughts on the last 2008 Presidential Debate between Democrat Barack Obama & Republican John McCain – until now. Overall, Bob Schieffer was the best moderator of any of the debates, the format was (to me) more conducive for the give & take of a real debate (when THAT was allowed to happen), & the candidates avoided any pitfalls in their respective performances which could have derailed their respective campaigns.
Both candidates stuck to their respective talking points & each man did a good job of defending their positions from the attacks of their respective rival. While McCain’s debate performance was the best of the three debates, at times he came across as very negative (this was especially true of the reaction shots of McCain where he appeared to be at times angry, humorless, or defensive). Obama, in contrast, remained unflappable, engaged, & very smooth. In short, he looked as “presidential” as JFK did in his 1960 Presidential Debate with Richard Nixon (whose TV demeanor undercut Tricky Dick’s superb command of the issues & contributed to his losing the election that year).
There were several revealing moments that hurt McCain & helped Obama. When Schieffer asked both men if they would utter to each other’s face some of the invective their respective attack ads have proclaimed over the airwaves, Obama acknowledged that politics is a rough contact sport, made no apologies for fighting for his beliefs, & sought to pivot the discussion towards his favorite themes/issues (“We can disagree without being disagreeable”). McCain, on the other hand, obsessed about remarks made by former civil rights activist John Lewis to the point where McCain came across as thin skinned. McCain’s attempts to tie Bill Ayers & ACORN to Obama were unsuccessful & allowed Obama the opportunity to dismiss the charges as either “old news” or irrelevant. Obama’s responses to the ACORN charges, in particular, may have been weak but McCain never seized the opportunity to use the controversy surrounding ACORN as a way to undermine Obama’s claim to represent a “post-partisan” approach to “change” the political culture.
Obama left himself wide open on some of his positions or comments but McCain rarely took the opportunity to exploit those moments. This was especially true with Obama’s criterion for nominating candidates to the SCOTUS, his misrepresentation of his vote on the “Born Alive” legislation, & his spending proposals being offered at a time when the country is facing its greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Even when McCain tried to nail Obama on “The One’s” perchant for glibness – like reminding the audience that Obama would “look into” offshore oil drilling as opposed to McCain’s desire to actually start the process ASAP – McCain’s charge came across more of a “gotcha” moment instead of being part of a forensic deconstruction of The One’s political persona if not Obama’s ideological worldview. Missed opportunities don’t win elections.
As I’ve stated in previous posts/comments, McCain still has a chance to turn things around before Election Day. His debate performances taken together as a whole, however, have greatly reduced his opportunities for success. McCain has yet to offer a compelling rationale for his candidacy which would trump the “change” mantra of Obama’s campaign. Barring any last minute surprises in either foreign policy or domestic policy, the odds don’t look good for either McCain or the Republican Party.