Last night Senators Barack Obama and John McCain faced off in the first presidential debate at Oxford, Mississippi. That this debate even happened brought a huge sigh of relief to the debate's organizers and the McCain campaign in particular because of very real possibility that Barack Obama would have the stage to himself with tens of millions of viewers.
This debate was supposed to focus primarily on foreign policy, but because of the volatile stock market, the proposed $700 billion relief package, and the congressional wrangling over the contents of this bill, the first half of the debate focused on economic policy. This turn of events advantaged Barack Obama because it allowed him to debate on favorable terrain from the outset. Anytime the economy is the subject, Obama benefits. And because debate time consumed by the economy is debate time not consumed by foreign policy and military affairs, that served as a double bonus for Obama at McCain's expense. McCain clearly got stronger as the debate shifted to foreign policy, but because so much time was eaten up talking about the economy, he did not have as much time as he wanted to talk about the issues he was more comfortable with.
In terms of their demeanor, John McCain came across as tough and aggressive. He spoke confidently about foreign policy and his ability to go after the nation's enemies. He also connected with voters when he talked about his experiences meeting military families and troops. His narrative about visiting Iraq and meeting soldiers who wanted to extend their enlistments was particularly strong. However, he also may have come across as brusque and ill-spirited because of the dismissive attitude he had towards Obama. McCain barely looked at Obama and seemed more inclined to talk to the moderator instead. He also said several times that Obama was too naive and too inexperienced to be Commander-in-Chief. However, this is likely a losing argument because 1) this is a change election (note that the experience argument didn't work for Obama's rivals in the Democratic primaries), 2) it undercuts the relatively inexperienced Sarah Palin, and 3) anytime Palin is the subject, it reminds voters of her unsteady media interviews. Voters likely left the debate with two perceptions of John McCain: 1) confident and empathetic, and 2) cold and dismissive. The first perception is presidential. The second is not.
Barack Obama had a more steady performance in terms of his body language. He spoke with confidence too and was quick to correct the record in the event that McCain misrepresented him. He was not as reluctant to address McCain directly, but he missed several opportunities to fully exploit the openings McCain had given him. One particularly effective retort occurred right after McCain mentioned a bracelet he received from the parent of a fallen soldier. After McCain's moving narrative, Obama refused to let McCain have a monopoly on this issue by telling voters about a bracelet he received from the parent of another fallen soldier. That particular exchange mattered because it helped put those nagging doubts about Obama's patriotism to rest. As for his delivery, it was less professorial (read impersonal) than in previous debates, but he still seems to struggle with touching voters at a gut level. However, he performed adequately in this regard and likely came across as more composed than McCain.
Regarding substance, neither candidate was comfortable providing specifics when it came to addressing parts of their campaign platform that they'd have to sacrifice in light of the cost of the economic relief bill being debated in Congress. Their difficulty in answering this question was a matter of not wanting to offend any particular constituencies and giving each other a new campaign attack ad. It was painful watching them dance around the question, but as a political observer, it was easy to understand why they were so loath to actually answer it.
Both candidates missed a huge opportunity to talk about illegal immigration and border security. Obama did briefly touch on port security, but may have left border security unsaid because he needs the Latino vote in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. The Republican base could have been more energized had McCain talked about border security, but perhaps McCain didn't want to risk losing Latino votes in the same three states I just mentioned.
McCain should consider himself lucky that Obama did not attack him as fiercely as he could have for his campaign decisions over the past few days, such as suspending his campaign and debating without having secured an economic bill first. And Obama did him another favor by allowing him spend so long talking about taxes and spending. Astute political observers noticed that McCain often included lines from his stump speech when discussing spending (e.g., "We Republicans went to change Washington, but Washington changed us."). However, perhaps by letting McCain talk for so long about earmarks and wasteful spending, Obama was essentially letting McCain hang himself with his own rope. While earmarks are indeed low-hanging fruit, voters are likely more concerned about the value of their homes and the security of their jobs than the DNA of bears. So that could actually feed into the narrative the Obama campaign wants to portray of McCain as being out of touch.
Foreign policy is where the starkest differences between the two candidates could be observed. This is where the next campaign narrative will likely be born. John McCain talked a lot about Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Dwight Eisenhower, and Vietnam. And his foreign policy seemed more like a continuation of President Bush's. Barack Obama, on the other hand, had a more forward-looking worldview in that he wanted a greater emphasis on diplomacy and international cooperation. If Barack Obama is able to turn John McCain into Bob Dole by making this election about the past vs. the future, McCain will be in a lot of trouble.
All in all, neither candidate scored a decisive victory last night. However, the fact that Obama and McCain debated to a near draw would suggest that McCain got the short end of the stick coming out of the debate. McCain has been losing ground in the polls and is trailing Obama in many of the battleground states. While he may have staunched the bleeding as far as the tracking polls are concerned, he likely did not do anything to significantly cut into Obama's lead. This foreign policy debate was his best opportunity to do so, but he did not get as much out of this debate as he needed to.
Another reason why Obama came out ahead in this debate is because he presented himself as reasonably competent on foreign policy. McCain is clearly more knowledgeable and more comfortable when discussing international and military affairs, but Obama at the very least displayed a sufficient understanding of the world and the United States' role in it. (Not an expert level of understanding, mind you, but an acceptable level.) Even though John McCain is not a part of the current executive branch, as a Republican, he is the incumbent. Barack Obama is the challenger and he came across as legitimate when talking about John McCain's main issue. McCain won't have the luxury of talking about Iraq, Iran, and Russia in the later debates because the issue on voters' minds this fall is clearly the economy.
Last month, I argued that the 2008 election could play out like several previous elections. Given the negative mood of the electorate, the poor economy, and dissatisfaction with the current administration, it seems like 2008 is playing out like 1980:
"The country is pessimistic and desperately wants to change direction. They're fed up with the current leadership, but don't want to take a gamble on the new kid on the block until he has successfully proven himself as at least marginally competent and acceptable. This is what happened with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter was an unpopular president and the nation was in a sour mood because of the Iranian hostage crisis and oil prices, but voters were reluctant to send Reagan to the White House. After he held his own in the debates, however, undecided and independent voters flocked to the California Republican in droves.Based on their performances last night, in my estimation, Barack Obama is considerably closer to winning the White House than John McCain is. However, McCain still has a very real chance to win this election. But for McCain to win, he will need to change this election from a referendum on policy to a referendum on character. His last chance to do this will be at the second presidential debate which has a town hall format. McCain is clearly more comfortable with this format, as he is more conversational and better able to work small crowds. Obama will need to improve his ability to come across like he sincerely understands the struggles of the middle class. He clearly does understand these voters and their concerns, but it is not resonating with voters as much as it could. Because the final debate is on the economy, that won't be of much help to him. So McCain really needs to find a way to make the election about Obama again and not Sarah Palin or the economy.
And now 28 years later, should Obama comes across reasonably decent and knowledgeable in the debates, this fairly close election will turn into a rout. If Obama bombs in the debates, the country will simply vote for McCain because even though they may disagree with his policies, they will at least say he is ready."
Speaking of Palin, she was noticeably absent from the post-debate spin interviews. Joe Biden appeared on several channels to talk about why Obama bested McCain. However, Palin was nowhere to be found. This was very odd because one should expect a vice presidential candidate to be comfortable building up the presidential candidate up after a debate. Yes, Palin has had some rocky interviews before, but this is not hardball; it's basic cheerleading. If Palin's absence becomes one of the dominant stories coming out of this debate, McCain could have a very serious problem.