Tonight marks the third and penultimate event in the series of debates between the two major party presidential tickets.
I love the debates because they represent actual interaction between two candidates. Yes, they are on-script and on-message most of the time, but even if they were singing a duet straight out of a phone book their tone, body-language, and physical reactions would say a lot. And, we have the chance to watch it live, unfiltered and uncommented upon.
So, please allow me to muddy the water with commentary.
I don’t know that many Americans experience news the way I do – sans television and radio, and with limited newspaper and online input. Essentially, I seek out the news I need and leave it at that, without the constant knell of feedback bouncing between SNL and the View, and all of the cable news channel comedies that lie between the two.
My news gathering method has been useful in debunking some of the claims of the first debate; there are certainly a few big lines tonight that I know to be half-truths after paying such close attention the first time around.
Brokaw kicks it off with gravitas and a touch of humor. Town hall format. Here we go. Interesting that the candidates will be occasionally seated. A very different set of body language at play.
Intro: Brokaw, direly: The world has changed, and not for the better. Obama will begin. (does that mean he won the coin flip or lost it?)
Q1: Alan – Fastest and most positive solution in the economic crisis, especially for older Americans.
Obama to his feet. This is totally theatre in the round, even in how it is shot! Should be interesting as they get into back and forth. Have to make sure the rescue package works properly – taxpayers “treated as investors.” Crackdown on CEOs. Making an example out of AIG. But, this is all step one.
Middle class needs their own package. (he has to be over time, good lord). Long term, health care and energy policies that burden families need to be revised.
McCain a little dig at Obama – “nice to be with you at a town hall meeting.” American’s upset and fearful – and immediately into energy independence and low taxes. “Let’s not raise taxes on anybody.”
I can see why McCain is credited with town hall strengths. He works the floor beautifully – he is definitely telling a narrative with his use of the stage. Talking about buying up bad mortgages and keeping people in homes. “Is it expensive? Yes. But, we know – my friends – until we start stabilizing home values” …. he’s right, it’s a very independent proposal.
f/u: Who to appoint to Paulson’s job when he departs? Wow, that’s a fucking zinger.
McCain says we should be able to identify and trust the person from the first. Buffet. Meg Whitman of eBay (McCain, joking about members of the crowd living on eBay winnings). This is a great answer; really punching trust.
Obama, “Warren would be a pretty good choice … The key is making sure that the next treasury secretary understands … prosperity isn’t going to just trickle down.” Hitting McCain on the “fundamentals” line, but then gets a little more personal about the problems hitting the middle class.
Here’s a thought – do the lower and upper middle class resent all the pummeling of the middle middle class?
Verdict: Both deliver standard stock opening responses. Obama more on-point in the first half, but both equally as compelling on redirect. Obama 3, McCain 2.
Q2: Oliver – people having a difficult time; what about the bailout package will actually “help these people out”?
McCain: it’s a rescue, not a bailout. Hitting the “main street” line and the suspension of the campaign. Even in my limited news consumption I know that to be bullshit, so I’m skeptical of him even mentioning it in this setting.
Hits Obama “cronies” for encouraging Mae/Mac. Linking Dems to Fanny and Freddie, Obama the 2nd highest recipient of their lobby dollars in history? That’s a profitable line of attack. Punching the mortgage-buying again, referring to the first questioner by name.
Obama, “let me tell you what’s in the credit package for you.” Credit frozen, but what does that mean practically? Wow, watch Obama tie the crisis right your payroll check. He must have practiced the hell out of that, it transpired in about 40 seconds.
“Have to correct McCain’s history, not surprisingly.” Hitting McCain on deregulation. Obama is getting a little lost with his pacing, and it is the mirrored in a stutter. McCain grinning, making notes. Obama hits McCain some more, but brings it back to “not pointing fingers”
Who the hell is keeping time at this thing?
f/u: Will it get worse before it gets better.
Obama: No (but, maybe yes). Coordinate with other countries? Great concept, but I don’t know how it’s playing in the room. Ends with less lobbying blah blah blah.
McCain: Depends on what we do. McCain hitting the mortgage plan again, clearly he wants that to be a takeaway tonight. Our workers best in the world (lies?). Innovative, best exporters and importers. This is a nice feel good line, but it’s half-truth … effectively fiction in a free market world.
Verdict: I liked both of their answers, and I would probably leave it at a tie if McCain hadn’t gone into the whole “suspend my campaign” line (especially since he later makes a point that we can do more than one thing at once as a country). However, despite Obama’s forty seconds of awesome, he stumbled and prattled about lobbying. No clear winner here. Obama 5, McCain 4.
Q3: Teresa, “How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got us into this global economic crisis.”
Obama, “I understand your frustration and your cynicism.” McCain knows how to talk to a hall of townies, but Obama – arugula commentary aside – tends to speak to what people are really doing day to day.
Now he’s slamming Bush for running up a deficit – no one’s innocent, but Bush is most guilty, which makes McCain 4/5 guilty.
Obama will spend money on the key issues. Leads with health care, not a favorite platform of mine because they never adequately explain how they will work with the current health care industry to enact positive change. Goes to his familiar “stop borrowing money from China” line, which is such a gimmick. Otherwise, I think he was relatively reassuring.
McCain says DC is broken, and he’s been a constant reformer. Hitting familiar notes – Feingold, Lieberman – “clear record of bipartisanship.” Hits Obama squarely: has not yet disagreed with his party. McCain, for all of Biden’s “not a maverick in the ways that matter,” at least knows how to say “no” to party leadership. (notice the complete rollback on “maverick” tonight; clearly Biden won that skirmish)
McCain, pacing, calls out some oversight orgs that prove that Obama is the big liberal spender he’s been made out to be. Go and look it up, he tells us. McCain getting very close and personal with the audience. Also, not over-projecting – he’s good with a handheld mic.
This is getting a little circuitous, but it’s a really good answer on the whole. Ends with energy – is Palin writing his talking points now? When it comes to energy, she ought to.
f/u: New economic realities. Health, energy, and entitlement reform – which priorities in which order?
McCain furiously making notes, possibly drawing frowning faces with exclamation point eyes, asks Brokaw to repeat. Work on all three at once. Obama looks hugely bemused the entire time. Should we be concerned that any answer that asks McCain to prioritize in the face of reduced spending garners this sort of equivocating answer?
Does Lieberman still count as across the aisle? Let’s build “a buncha nuclear plants.” Um, yikes? Again, this is the “Freebird” of one minute answers. Brokaw, completely ineffective in keeping time.
Obama, we have to prioritize like a family has to prioritize. #1, energy. There you go. Knows how much gas is in Nashville, and that $3.80 gas is bad for our national security. Wow, switched to international so quick there I got whiplash.
Invoking JFK and the moon; can we get energy independent in 10 years? That was a very glowing moment.
#2 Health Care. And, #3 Education. (Brokaw, fuck your entitlement, that was totally a falsie to see if I was paying attention.)
Earmarks versus tax cuts. Blah blah blah. I think we’ve shown that this tax breaks for oil companies thing is selective truth, I wish Obama would give it up.
Brokaw makes a deficit joke. FAIL
Verdict: McCain destroyed Obama in the first half, but dropped the follow-up entirely, and Obama took briefly took advantage to make a great soundbite and then derailed. McCain clearly won on substance. Obama 7, McCain 7.
Q4: Fiora(?), from Chicago, depression era gal – What sacrifices do Americans have to make?
McCain: some programs we have to eliminate. Declines to get specific. Um, maybe you plan to cut education? Have you even said that word yet. I have to believe that parents are starting to notice the constant avoidance.
Talking about savings on defense spending – not something you expect from McCain. Teasing Obama about his aforementioned $3 million overhead projector. Isn’t a museum for kids worth federal money? Talk about growing a new generation of innovators; this is a bad earmark to make an example out of. Is this playing well with hockey moms? McCain, do you know that children are not really tiny old people?
Sorry, I’ll try to stay on topic.
Spending freeze! Talking about full transparency, but he never has a real answer for this question. “We’re not rifle shots here, we’re Americans.” All your base, etc, etc.
Obama looks every so slightly flustered here. Invoking 9/11 – dangerous gambit, but I think within the sacrifice vein it’s actually appropriate. Note that McCain stands whenever Obama reaches the crux of his point. Obama reminding us that Bush’s sacrifice assignment for us was go out and shop. WTG, W.
Back to energy. (Does Gore get a dollar every time they mention this on a national platform? Or, maybe one extra retroactive Florida vote?) Not only do we need clean coal, but we need to manage our own energy. Electric cars, fuel efficiency. This is kinda turning me on.
Young people want to know how that can serve. Double the peace corp, create a nation-wide a volunteer corp. This would be a beautiful thing – “so that military families and our troops aren’t the only ones bearing the burden.” Another great rhetorical moment.
f/u: Brokaw, says “the American consumers got drunk.” On credit, he means.
Obama wants to show good habits in DC to prove to Americans that they can have good habits to. The best answer to this question would a verbatim recital of Palin’s answer from last week – still my favorite on-point message of the debates so far, with competition only from Obama’s moon point just above.
Hard to ask a teacher making $35k to tighten her belt. Again, examples from actual life, not platitudes. Disagrees with McCain on the freeze. He’s coming close to the Palin awesomeness on this one.
McCain, “Nailing jello to the wall” on Obama’s tax proposals – he wants to raise taxes. Um, isn’t that patently false. Is this stuff supposed to be sliding past me? Like, are these answers aimed at people with low listening comprehension? I now know which of these things are bullshit.
Obama seems mystified by this answer, like, beyond amused all the way to dumbfounded. McCain works his way around to his dubious health care policy, which sounds more like voodoo every time I hear it.
Obama wants to respond, but Brokaw grows a pair.
Verdict: I’m close to awarding zero points to McCain, who consistently can’t answer this question, but he struck a few good notes. Still, Obama owned this exchange – he didn’t even need the last word. Obama 11, McCain 8.
Q5: Not sure of name, now hitting the entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Are they going to bankrupt us in a few short years? Brokaw clearly pissed that entitlement should have been the #1 answer earlier, presses them both to promise to address it in their first two years in office.
Obama comes right out and says, um, no, not in my first two years. First TERM, probably, but entitlement is not the biggest drag on our tax policies. “Straight talk express lost a wheel on that one.”
Obama getting serious now. “Listen to me – this is actually true.” Responding to McCains jello. He seemed for a hot second like he might actually get angry. Bringing up the 5% of small businesses point Biden used to great effect last week – his tax and health care policies largely don’t interfere with small businesses.
Now slamming McCain for where his tax cuts are going – wealthy, oil companies – whatever, I’m not even really listening. Obama’s answers on this range of topics would be more effective if he didn’t go negative afterward, since that’s what can seem dubious. You know, just “here is my truth. Believe me or not, but here it is.”
McCain, “I’ll answer the question.” “It’s not that hard to fix social security.” Basically, the answer is bipartisanship. McCain again hits Obama for agreeing with his party too much; I guess that’s his version of the “90% with Bush” argument.
Wants a Medicare commission, sounds vaguely reasonable. BACK to arguing the tax issue. I’m seriously deducting points for this if it comes up again. Just tell people to go to your fucking website already.
Verdict: Another economic non-answer from McCain, and his argument for Social Security had no substance, but Obama doesn’t lap him the way he did last time. Really, they were both non-answers. Obama just non-answered slightly less while McCain added yet another thing to the list of things that he won’t have to eliminate from his first years in office. Obama 14, McCain 10.
Q6: Ingrid, what would you do to make sure congress moves fast on environmental issues like climate change and green jobs?
(connection getting a little wonky)
McCain, doesn’t want to hand our children and grandchildren “a damaged planet.” Hilariously making fun of Obama for caring about nuclear waste disposal, because he spent time on Navy ships with it? I think that was the first truly kooky moment McCain has had tonight. But, okay, in all fairness, he comes back around to technology. And hits the insufferable “we’re the most innovative” line. Aside from “um, no,” again, I point to lack of education platform. Innovation dies without education.
Obama: this is not just a challenge, but an opportunity. Anyone who namechecks my definition of “crisis” kinda wins by default. Tying the invention of the computer to how we need to leap forward on energy – men in a room, inventing together for a common purpose discovered this huge step forward. Obama all for for solar, wind, geothermal – even nuclear – as components of the energy mix. Hitting McCain for voting against alternative fuels.
(connection totally wonky; like watching Obama and McCain do the robot)
f/u, Brokaw: Is the answer the Manhattan project, or 100k garages, the kind of innovation that developed silicon valley?
McCain hitting Obama for voting for an earmarky energy bill that Bush liked and McCain didn’t. Touches offshore drilling as “fundamental economics” (lie). Total non-answer
Clearly they need blinking light rather than Brokaw waving like a maniac.
Verdict: I’m not sure why Obama didn’t get a response on this one, but it doesn’t matter; his answer to the first half was note-perfect. McCain, however, had a good appeal to emotion at the top. Obama 18, McCain 11.
Q7: Lindsey. (Finally, a health care question.) Should health care be a commodity?
Wow. Way to hit me where I earn my paycheck. And overt question, but there’s a lot of subtly in this one.
Obama talking about premiums doubling. McCain immediately out of his seat to try to defuse the answer with movement. “If you’ve got health care already, then you can keep your plan and your choice of doctor. We’re going to work with your employer to lower the cost of your premiums.” Investing in prevention and info technology – this is awesome. This is such a valid answer in line with the best practices of the innovators in the health care industry. And, wants to sell federal employee benefits to the uninsured.
That was an answer that makes a hell of a lot of sense. I’m telling you, I work on this every day. Obama, FINALLY, gets a chance to dissect the insanity of the McCain plan. Take away mammogram coverage? That’s a scary thought. “Would lead to the unraveling” of what’s functional in our current system.
McCain reciting what he was able to memorize from Obama’s answer. In all seriousness. Explains the fundamental difference is that the government should stay out of health care. Mandates = bad. Fines = bad. Maybe that would be more effective if he didn’t follow-up with plugging a $5000 health credit.
Effectively, the answer is “yes, health care is a commodity, so let’s keep treating it that way.”
THIS IS FICTION. Health care costs are what they are in for a certain company because of costs for services and utilization for those employees in in that region. It’s not a credit card company or a teddy bear factory. And, the likely result of shopping around is that the youngest, healthiest members will shop-for and qualify-for rock bottom rates, leaving all of the insurance hogs with the same inflating costs. Consumerism is about making educated decisions based on a complex matrix of possible choices. $5k in your pocket does not equal consumerism.
McCain’s plan is untenable. UNTENABLE. And, it’s the wrong answer to that woman’s question. He’s wondering out loud about parents that will get fined because they can’ get coverage for kids without mentioning CHIP.
McCain is fundamentally in the dark about health care. I’m so happy this finally got asked.
f/u: Health care, privilege, right, or responsibility?
McCain, responsibility. Sounds like a socialist for a second, and then promises his plan will do just that. What now? Not on $5k a year it’s not.
Obama wisely stands up to establish himself with viewers, holds his space. I think it’s a better thing than the pacing, which distracts but doesn’t really help you establish any control.
Obama, “right.” Invokes his mother’s final months spent fighting with insurance. Slowly debunking the McCain plan. Children MUST have health care, almost kinda mentions CHIP.
SCORE! Obama name checks CHIP. McCain voted against it. I could make out with Barack right now. This is the first intelligent discussion of health care I’ve ever heard from a political candidate. Hitting McCain for endorsing shopping state by state, “In banking that’s how it works,” and it leads to less consumer protection. There’s a chilling endorsement.
(Though, um, try not to slam banks that shelter themselves in Delaware when Biden is on your ticket, mmkay?)
Verdict: I can’t in good conscience award McCain with any credit on this one, because his answer was absolutely wrong. Obama, while not perfect, certainly understands the established system he has to work to ameliorate, and how the government already has resources at its disposal to do just that. Obama 23, McCain 11.
Q8: Phil. Softspoken, but on point. How will recent economic stress effect our ability to be a “peacemaker” in the world?
McCain, strong military nations must also have a strong economy. We have shed blood on the four corners of the earth to protect freedom, and we’ll continue to do that – to protect others’ freedom as well as our own.
Good point here, we don’t always do things well, but we do what’s good and right. WMDs aside, I think that’s a pretty solid argument. “No time for on the job training.”
Obama: “There are some things I don’t understand.” Clearly winding up for Iraq discussion. I am literally not going to cover this terror-tory again.
Now that we’re seeing more of them both on their feet and working the room I’d say that they’re equally gifted at this town hall thing. McCain makes it more conversational and personal, but Obama is very dynamic in the space. My only concern is that it might be reading too big in the room. Except, there are only 80 people in the room; theatre is not usually nationally televised.
By contrast, McCain is more subtle. He’s doing more with body language and inflection. He doesn’t play towards cameras as well.
f/u: What are the Obama doctrine and McCain doctrine for use of force in places where it doesn’t effect our security. Mostly namechecks African countries.
Obama – maybe not national security interests at stake, but human interests. Would we have stopped the holocaust? Would we have stopped Rwanda? Letting genocide go by unchecked diminishes us. This is a powerful answer. But, we can’t be everywhere at once, which is why we need allies. Uses Darfur as an example; we can intervene at low cost if we can mobilize allies.
McCain, back to Iraq. See above; I am not typing about this. Maybe I take back what I said about cameras, though, because McCain has repeatedly crossed Obama’s eyelines to the camera in the last few answers. Good use of the space.
Okay, back to genocide. “Tempered by our ability to beneficially effect the situation.” Understand the limits of our capabilities. Wants a cold hand at the till? Is he saying he’s cool-handed? Our blood is our most precious asset – again with the blood fetish. “Never again” to holocaust and Rwanda, but don’t leave a situation so soon as to weaken our reputation and our abilities.
Verdict: A rare occasion where I think Obama came off as more measured on a national security issue. Obama 26, McCain 13.
Q9: Katie-Ann. Should we respect Pakistani sovereignty, or pursue like we did in Vietnam war?
Obama, yes, we have a difficult situation in Pakistan, but mostly because we mishandled Iraq, and our problem trickled out. Wants to end Iraq, move to Afghanistan, and use that to leverage Pakistan.
I have to think most Americans are about as educated about the complexities as Pakistan as I am, which is to say not much. This is one of those issues (unlike Iraq) where they can frame the debate entire on their own.
McCain loves “big stick” doctrine. Good use of a quote everyone knows, but out of its original context. Claims Obama likes “big talk.” Slamming Obama for threatening Pakistan – turns public position against us. Valid. Goes to Afghanistan history – a great way to frame. Effectively, Afghanistan happened because we pulled out too soon after driving out the Russians AKA this is an allegory for Iraq. And it makes a certain amount of sense.
Funny how Obama comes off like a Hawk and McCain like a dove.
Obama and McCain negotiate for an extra follow-up, Brokaw concedes.
Obama: I am not saying I’m going to invade. I’m saying follow Bin Laden. Strawmans McCain with praise and goes in for a huge slam with “Bomb bomb Iran” and “wipe N. Korea of the map.” So, is that soft talk?
McCain’s response: “not true.” What’s not true? Oh, explaining “Bomb Iran” as humoring a fellow veteran. Okay, that’s fair. Context is important. McCain doesn’t want “to telegraph my punches” on the topic of Bid Laden. Strong counter-punch.
f/u: Brokaw throws in some current events, British experts saying “we’re failing in Afghanistan” and/or “we need an acceptable dictator.
Obama will be very brief. We are going to have to make the Iraqi government take more responsibility, withdraw troops over time, and put some additional troops into Afghanistan. Math is simple enough.
McCain credits Obama with having some valid ideas, but that he does not have follow-through.
Verdict: In keeping with framing the question, I think McCain got the best of this one. Obama 28, McCain 16.
Q10: Alden from internet. How can we apply effective pressure on Russia on humanitarian issues without provoking another Cold War.
McCain – no Cold War, but their behavior is certainly out of the norm. Repeats the “Putin’s eyes … KGB” point. I think this sometimes goes above the heads of a slightly younger generation who didn’t grow up with the Cold War as a reality. I watched a lot of news as a five year old, so I totally hang with this, but I’d be interested to see how the Russia material plays out against a range of age bands.
Make the Russians understand what is not acceptable – leverage economic, diplomatic, and other factors.
Can you “reignite” a Cold War?
Obama: resurgence of Russia is one of the central issues of the next presidency. We have to do more than provide moral support – financial support, assistance in rebuilding economies. Maybe Putin’s intent was destabilization?
“We have to see around the corners, anticipate these problems ahead of time.” Plugs himself for forewarning about Georgia. The next CIC’s job is to see the forthcoming challenges – let’s react less and anticipate more. (Implicitly: y’all are the ones that hurried in Afghanistan, my Iraq withdraw is tortoise-like in response.) Ties it out back to energy.
f/u: Russia, evil empire, yes or no
Obama: engaging in evil behavior; still dangerous nationalists there.
McCain: maybe. Sounds equivocating, but he actually makes a point for either side. Effectively, the next president will decide the answer.
Verdict: Obama is gaining ground here, and is effective in using rhetorical devices to fill in for gaps in policy. I’d still give a slight edge to McCain, mostly for the smart way in which he closed the rebuttal. Obama 30, McCain 19.
Q11: Terry. A retired navy chief. What if Iran attacks Israel? Hit Iran, or wait for UN Security Council approval?
McCain goes in for a touch on the shoulder and Terry responds with a handshake. It’s a nice, genuine moment, and McCain seems to get back on his town hall horse afterward – of course we’re going to support Isreal regardless of UN security council approval.
Goes back to the parsing of “preconditions,” another topic I’m really tired of typing about already. Seriously, how do pundits churn this crap every day? Again, mentions “League of Democracies.” “Never allow a second holocaust.”
Obama, “we cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It would be a game-changer in the region.” Won’t take military options off the table, and it’s important not to give veto power to the UN or anyone else. BUT, let’s use our tools to prevent that scenario. Sanctions, alternative energy – prevent Iran from importing gasoline (that’s wild), that changes their cost benefit analysis.
We should talk to friends AND enemies. Change your behavior, or suffer consequences. In the Obama world it’s “community of nations.” Again, links the silent treatment to armament, which might be correlation rather than causation, but still a point.
Verdict: This was tied on facts, but advantage McCain for the human moment. Obama 32, McCain 22.
Q12: Peggy from New Hampshire. “What don’t you know, and how will you learn it.”
Obama. Michelle could give you a better list. (laugh from a mostly stoic office). The presidency … “It’s never the challenges you expect, it’s the challenges you don’t.” Obama invoking his childhood, sacrifice of his family to get him to this point. So, will we pass on that dream, or not?
If he can tie this to a “know / don’t know” punchline I’ll be impressed. Talking about diminished dreams during the Bush presidency. “We need fundamental change.” This is actually a very personal answer, even with the childhood stuff aside.
McCain. “What I don’t know is what all of us don’t know, and that’s what’s going to happen both here and abroad.” (It sounds somewhat memorized, yet strangely incoherent.) “What I don’t know is what the unexpected will be.” McCain, rightfully, invokes his own family history – father away at war. He knows keeping hope alive – his hope has lived through a lot.
Aside from the confused nonsense at the beginning, this is a really great sell speech; I wish we’d hear this sort of thing more consistently.
“I’ll rest on my record … the great honor of my life is to always put my country first.”
Verdict: How do you grade a question with no right answer? Obama answered it better in spirit, and then steered towards the more evangelical side of his speaking we haven’t seen much of lately. McCain got a little tangled, but stuck the landing in bringing this back to his personal character, which transcends demeanor.
I don’t think I have to award points here – they both said what they wanted to say.
Final Verdict: Obama 32, McCain 22.
In my 5-points-per-question system that so often breaks 3/2 that means Obama averaged a win on every question. And, honestly, I think I over-corrected on giving McCain the benefit of doubt on foreign policy after my viciousness on his failure to adequately address health care – the score should probably be slightly higher in Obama’s benefit
I’m going to adjust my overall scoring here, because the ratio of points from one debate to the next is not very consistent. Rather than rejigger every time, I’ll just weight all four equally to add up to a 100 total points, with each debate worth a quarter of the total.
In debate #1 I gave McCain the slight edge – 18 to 16 over Obama. That’s 13/25 McCain, 12/25 Obama. Then, I awarded Biden 42 and Palin 31, which is 14/25 Biden, 11/25 Palin
Tonight it’s 15/25 Obama, 10/25 McCain.
Current total standings: 41/75 Obama/Biden to 34/75 McCain/Palin. McCain would have to win the next debate by a factor of 2:1 to close the gap at this point, and most of that gap was opened tonight due to a few very incisive answers from Obama.