Debate Thoughts

October 8, 2008

The debate tonight — an analysis.

Here’s the Transcript

McCain was on offense much of the time. Ahead of time, this is a plan I would have thought of in a positive light given the poll numbers and the belief that Obama doesn’t do well when forced into a corner. Tonight, however, I thought Obama performed rather well. All he really had to do was appear stately, promote his understanding of the issues, and enhance a the public’s perception of him as a leader. He would be able to accomplish this if McCain appeared too petty or too aggressive. In the end, I think this was a close debate, leaning slightly toward McCain, especially when viewed through the lens we had coming into the evening: that Obama has a clear polling advantage and an advantageous economic situation.


McCain’s response to the insurance question was very good.  He challenged Obama to describe the size of the “fines” included in his health care plan. When Obama didn’t provide the answer, McCain called him on it. Very aggressive.

Foreign Policy and Interventionism Regarding Rwanda, Darfur, Somalia, etc.

This was a very broad question, one which will trigger various responses from different listeners. Obama had the first answer and gave a very appealing emotional response to what is admittedly an emotional question. McCain’s response was both optimistic and rational. It was an exceptionally good response to a question that is difficult to answer second.

He offered a very notable insight on the limits of our ability to improve a situation and cited Somalia as evidence. Probably the most impressive answer of the evening from McCain (along with the Pakistan remarks).

Will You Bomb Pakistan?

I don’t like hearing this question asked. What exactly do you want the candidate to say?

The question presupposes a hypothetical target in a very fragile country but doesn’t discuss the reliability of our intelligence or any current political considerations. I think Obama gave the concise and effective answer, though it wasn’t necessarily specific.  It included the term “encourage democracy.” For my money, though, McCain provided the answer I think all candidates should be giving. If Pakistanis are listening to that debate…what are they thinking? We want them to cooperate with us, don’t we?


My opinion: Our relationship with Russia for the past decade has been one of missed opportunities. Things were better in 1998 than they were in 2008. We’ve always known that they could elect a nationalist who would curtail their political progress. Sure, enough…it happened. Meanwhile, we’ve been expanding NATO into their backyard, opposing their foreign policy concerns, and criticizing them very publicly. All we have for them now is flamboyant rhetoric.

Concerning the debate: Consider what Russians are thinking when they watch this debate and when they read the headlines tomorrow. You can bet that the question of most interest to them isn’t the one about the Peace Corps. This doesn’t even need media spin. “Do you think that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an evil empire?”

More opinion: The correct answer, if I may suggest one, is to highlight the fact that there is nothing in the Russian DNA that would make that country an “evil empire.” Also, make the point that you are not interested in fomenting trouble between two nations that should be seeking better relations. McCain very barely spoke to that effect, but neither candidate was able to put a positive spin on the topic.


Usually McCain does rather well in a town hall format. He forfeited much of his advantages and decided to go on the attack on a night that probably would have witnessed a non-aggressive opponent. McCain remained on the issues, which certainly helped his case and mitigated the risk of seeming excessively divisive. Obama was well composed and neutralized much of this as well.

McCain made some typical McCain moves: pacing, chuckling, and tossing in some odd jokes. We accept it, though — he’s like that uncle you can’t really criticize…

Unfortunately, these debates are very often about style (or maybe the color of Nixon’s jacket). In that regard, Obama displayed his comparative advantage and kept a good countenance and composure throughout the event.

What Don’t You Know?

Every candidate should be prepared for this one (and certainly is). Both responses were good and , though similar, exactly what should have been said. Both of them, however, devolved into a monologue about their respective backgrounds. Personally, I’m not interested in an emotional sales pitch from a presidential candidate, especially when time is at such a premium. Keep talking about the credit crisis.  Perhaps more annoying is that this is one of the first things that the ABC analysts wanted to discuss afterwards.