Last night was the first of three Presidential debates for the 2008 election, between Democratic nominee Barack Obama, and Republican nominee John McCain. If you haven't seen it, it is available in its entirety on CNN.com.
The first question that's asked is who won. I'm not sure that's the right question to ask, but I'll bite. There are two answers here. On the one hand, from as objective a standpoint as I could figure, it seemed more or less like a draw. McCain was out of his league when it came to the economic discussion that dominated the first half hour of the debate, but he came back strong when they started talking about Iraq, and managed to get the upper hand a bit with "the Surge worked nanner-nanner," to which the ever graceful Obama could only reply "Yes, it did." I think they were about evenly matched in terms of Russia/Pakistan talks. So like I say, a draw.
But a draw, in this case, can also be seen as a win for Obama. John McCain is and has been behind in the polls as the afterglow of Sarah Palin's nomination began to wear off (which, as is often the case, occurred when she opened her mouth and spoke); his "suspend the campaign/debate" bluff got called and he wound up losing the skirmish and appearing at the debate after all. McCain needed a home run, and he was most likely to get it from this debate, as it was (supposed to be) about foreign policy, which is (supposed to be) his specialty. He needed to show that Obama was in over his head when it came to foreign policy, and that he, John McCain, had what it took.
And while perhaps J McC did show -- at least to those already inclined to think so -- that he "has what it takes," so did Obama. No major gaffes on Obama's part. He remained cool, collected, and for every question, he had an answer.2
As I said, McCain needed a home run, this was his best chance to hit one -- and he didn't. Policy-wise, they tied. "Not a game-changer either way," the pundits are saying. That means the game remains as it was: Obama started ahead in the polls, and remained ahead in the polls, and so the tie was, in a sense, a victory for Obama.
Of course, the debates aren't really for staunch Republicans or Democrats, who have already made up their minds and are just watching the way one might watch a football match, a gladiatorial match, or an episode of Destroyed in Seconds. They're not really weighing the two candidates' stances on the issues, they just don't want to miss the very real possibility of political carnage.3
No, the debates are for those beautiful bastards, the undecideds -- who, ironically, are the ultimate deciders. They are the third-or-so of the population that one of the candidates needs to win over. And according to the polls, Obama convinced more of them that he could handle the gig than McCain did last night.
Nonetheless, McCain is clearly of the Orwellian belief that you can control make something true merely by saying that it is true. For example, his campaign ran online ads declaring him the winner not only before yesterday's debate, but before he'd even confirmed that he would attend the debate.
So it's no surprise that, post-debate, the McCain campaign ran the following advertisement:
I think, however, that this ad backfires in a number of ways.
First off, we'll address the obvious elephant in the room: these statements are taken out of context. All three of them were followed by "but." Obama agreed with McCain's sentiments, but not the conclusions he drew or the actions he intended to take. But I suppose that kind of quote-mining is just par for the political course, so we won't belabor that. Let's talk about some of the other problems with it.
As one YouTube commenter pointed out:
By attacking Obama for agreeing with McCain, isn't his own campaign affirming the idea that McCain's policies are WRONG?
Well said, random internet person. Well said.
It also shows a fundamental (the politicians and pundits like that word) flaw in McCain's thinking. Specifically, that being willing to concede that someone else is right, and/or that you have occasionally been wrong, is some kind of weakness. That's exactly the bullshit pigheaded arrogance that has made Dubya the worst President, certainly in the recent history if not in the entire history of our nation.
It's okay to admit that you were wrong. In fact, to me, that shows more leadership potential and a better understanding of the nuances of human interaction than Bush or McCain seem to display.
On top of that, this ad, at least in concept, is plagiarized directly from this ad that VP nominee Joe Biden put together during the primary elections:
Let's stand back and think about this for a second. John McCain puts out an ad stating flat-out that Barack Obama is not ready to lead. And yet:
- John McCain chooses Sarah Palin as his running mate in a blatant attempt to cash in on Hillary's popularity.
- John McCain abandons his "experience" platform and adopts a "change" platform identical to the one that Obama has been using since the beginning.
- John McCain uses the "[blank] we can believe in" structure, recognizing its effectiveness in Obama's campaign
-Even last night, he appropriated Obama's rhetorical "Main Street/Wall Street" dichotomy, recognizing it as an effective sound bite, as well as another of Obama's frequently-repeated phrases, "Let me be clear."
- His "victory ad" is copied from his opponent's running mate.
In other words, McCain has spent his campaign following the other side's lead. If Obama isn't ready to lead, then why is McCain following right behind him at every move?
Also, it's a non-sequitur. The "punchline" of the ad has nothing to do with the preceding content. How does "I agree with Sen. McCain" automatically lead to "No"? It doesn't. They're two separate ads.
Here's my theory as to what happened: As a visual effects and graphics guy, I know that those graphics would have taken some time. So the fact is that they were already planning that ad, and had made the graphics and recorded the narration before the debate even happened, otherwise they wouldn't have been able to get the ad up so instantaneously.
They had already planned to release an ad stating that Obama was not ready to lead, already created the beginning and end bits, and were just waiting for Barack to put his foot in his mouth at the debate, so they could use that clip in the ad as their proof.
And the best they got out of him was his occasional concession that McCain had the right idea, but not the right approach, and just left the latter part out.
This is exactly the problem with their thinking -- the thinking that we already have in the White House. They make a plan and they refuse to deviate from it, even when it is clearly no longer the best strategy. "Stay the course." Fuck's sake.
Last comment on the debate: body language. Watch the debate with the sound off and just judge each one based on body cues. Obama was cool, relaxed -- hate to be trite, but "Presidential." He looked right at McCain, both while speaking to McCain and while McCain was speaking. He stood up straight and proud, and came across as someone I would be proud to have representing our country abroad.
McCain, on the other hand, was small, hunched over, tense, and looked more pissed-off as the night went on. He blinked a LOT, especially at the beginning -- generally a sign of either uncertainty or outright deceit -- and refused to look at or even directly address Obama. There are several ways to read that, none of them particularly good:
- On a purely primal level, social inferiors will not look their superiors in the eyes. You see this in wolves, lions, dogs, and apes. Subordinate males will not look at the dominant male. So just coming from the animal instinct level, John McCain recognized Obama as the alpha male on the stage.
- McCain is known to have a fiery temper, and despite his death's head rictus of a smile, he was all but vibrating with rage as Obama positively refused to be ignorant of the issues. It may be that he avoided looking at Obama because he would have utterly lost his composure if he had done so.4
- McCain was showing a total lack of respect, even contempt, for a formidable and worthy opponent. You don't have to like someone to respect them, and we don't need another 4 years of global petulance and disrespect from our Commander-in-Chief.5
I'm trying not to present a false dichotomy here, but I really can't think of any positive reason that McCain should have totally avoided eye contact, or even addressing Obama directly, especially when the format of the debate was that the two candidates would take five minutes in each topic to address each other directly. If any of you can put a positive spin on McCain's attitude, I'd be glad to hear it.
I was not myself undecided and this debate has not swung my vote. It's only made me more baffled -- and terrified -- that the race could be as close as it is.
As has been said by others, I don't believe that Obama is the pure-souled superpolitician who will finally bring back the unicorns. But I believe that this country needs a drastic change in direction, and Barack Obama represents that in far more ways than John McCain.
And if Obama really does bring back the unicorns, to boot -- well, I will be happy to admit I was wrong.
In the meantime, I'm very much looking forward to Thursday's debate.
- And even if you do want to hear it, go read Dr. McNinja afterwards, because that's some funny shit. Make sure you read the alt-text!↩
- Well, not quite every question. I was annoyed at the way both of them dodged the very direct question "What specific programs will you have to cut [read: what specific campaign promises will you be breaking] as a result of the economic crisis?" But both of them did it, so that one's a draw too.↩
- For this reason, I'm inclined to think that the Biden-Palin debate will be the highest rated of all the debates this election season. One internet wit predicted it will end with Palin curled up and sobbing in a corner, while Biden dons parachute pants and does the Hammer Dance across the stage. ↩
- McCain also apparently didn't realize that his tactic of "make up lies about the opponent's positions and declare them as truth" wouldn't work if his opponent was standing right there to contradict him, which Obama did on multiple occasions, finally neutralizing many of the false talking points McCain has been spreading around the last few months.↩
- The more cynical or knee-jerk among us would probably say McCain was exhibiting racism, but I think, all else being equal (no pun intended), McCain would have behaved the same way with a white man. ↩