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Obama-McCain Second Debate Analysis

The second presidential debate took place tonight in Nashville, Tennessee. Unlike the first debate, this one was conducted in a town hall format which would incorporate questions from regular voters in the audience. Because John McCain had been criticizing Barack Obama for not joining him in town hall debates over the course of the campaign, McCain arguably had higher expectations to meet because this format was his specialty. And because he's trailing in the polls, he really needed to deliver a strong performance to reinvigorate his campaign.

That didn't happen.

McCain had three problems with this debate. First of all, he spent a lot of time talking about Ronald Reagan, Tip O'Neill, the KGB, Teddy Roosevelt, and even Herbert Hoover. That reinforces McCain's age and portrays him as representing the past. He seemed to have no new ideas, no new goals, and no sense of where he wanted to take the country. By contrast, Obama talked more about the future. He mentioned the 21st century several times and America's role in an ever-changing world. Obama spoke with greater vigor and had a more forward-looking vision.

The second problem was that compared to Obama, McCain tended to speak more in platitudes. Obama used a lot of generalities too, though not as often, but at least his generalities seemed to have greater relevance to average voters' lives. He displayed a greater sense of empathy and a better understanding of average people's lives. He mentioned sending children to college, rising insurance copayments and deductibles, and how energy independence was in our national security interests. As a bonus, he gave a far clearer explanation of how the problems on Wall Street are threatening the lives of regular people. All of this is undercutting the common attacks on Obama as being an elitist or "not one of us."

Meanwhile, McCain threatened to portray himself as the candidate who is out of touch with voters. For example, instead of talking about sacrifices McCain would ask the nation to make, he delivered a long diatribe against earmarks. Do voters really care about a $3 million telescope in Chicago when their 401(k) lost $30,000 in the stock market over the past week?

McCain's generalities sounded more like empty platitudes and slogans:

"I know how to get Osama bin Laden." (So tell President Bush and go get him already!)

"Social Security is easy to fix." (Then tell us how!)

"We can solve this problem by working together." (That's a solution?!)

The third problem concerned McCain's tone. Perhaps the town hall format actually worked against McCain in that unlike the town halls he's used to experiencing, this one did not feature a partisan Republican audience. So perhaps McCain had trouble adjusting to the fact that some of the jokes or applause lines he would employ on the campaign trail before friendly audiences fell flat or were otherwise inappropriate at the debate tonight.

Also, by attacking Obama using mischaracterizations of his record, he is by extension insulting voters' intelligence by distorting Obama's positions right after they heard them. Claiming that Obama wanted to "attack Pakistan" after Obama said he would launch a strike in the event of actionable intelligence regarding Osama bin Laden's whereabouts sounded dishonest. Such instances threaten to erode McCain's credibility and make future assertions from his campaign fall upon deaf ears. Sarah Palin's credibility beyond the Republican base is limited, so McCain has to be careful not to squander his own.

Here are some key moments that will likely crystallize in voters' minds:

1. "That one." This was an inexplicably rude way for McCain to refer to Obama. Both are United States senators who are running to be President of the United States. For McCain to essentially call Obama an "it" will likely feed into the burgeoning narrative of McCain's ill temperament. Obama consistently referred to McCain as "Senator McCain" or "John McCain." However, McCain's dehumanizing "that one" remark showed the contempt he has for Obama and his candidacy. Despite their differences in age, experience, and life histories, Barack Obama and John McCain are equals on stage. "That one" is not a comment befitting a statesman, much less a president.

2. "Bomb bomb bomb Iran." One of Obama's strongest retorts of the night came after McCain talked about Obama's provocative remarks regarding foreign policy and military action. McCain tried to emphasize that an inexperienced, bombastic Obama could have disastrous effects regarding foreign policy and national security. Obama then turned McCain's rhetoric against him by reminding the audience that McCain's "bomb bomb bomb Iran" quip contradicted his own rhetoric and undercut McCain's own credibility on foreign policy.

3. "Health care is a right." John McCain made the conservative argument that health care is a responsibility. That's a valid point. If you don't want health care, you shouldn't have to purchase it. But you should because it's the responsible thing to do, and the onus for purchasing it should be on individuals. However, that is not what voters wanted to hear. Obama said that America is a first-rate nation in which Americans should have the right to quality medical care. That statement tapped into the anger and frustrations many people are experiencing and showed that Obama understood their feelings.

Obama is looking increasingly plausible as a future president. He appears even-tempered, pleasant, empathetic, reasonably competent on foreign policy, and in touch with voters on the economy. On the other hand, John McCain is looking increasingly cantankerous, unsteady, tired, out of touch, and stale. McCain clearly lost this debate and lost his last best chance to boost his campaign. It is true that there is one debate left, but the problem is that this final debate is about the one subject McCain wants to avoid: the economy and domestic issues. Obama was able to establish himself as McCain's near equal on foreign policy in both debates so far. McCain will be hard pressed to establish himself as Obama's near equal on the economy in the final debate next week.

One trap that many politicos, journalists, and pundits fall into is the tendency to call the presidential race even. It's common to hear phrases like "too close to call" and "in a dead heat." Part of this is because they don't want to appear biased and risk losing their credibility in their quest to be objective. Others think a close race makes for a better storyline than a blowout. However, this race is clearly getting away from McCain. The race as it stands right now is not even. Barack Obama is leading almost every national poll and is on offense in a lot more red states than McCain is in blue states. Because of the town hall format, again, which is McCain's specialty, McCain really had a chance to change the campaign narrative and eat into Obama's lead. But he squandered it.

This campaign has shifted from 2004 to 1980 with a bit of 1996 mixed in. (Read more here.) If all the McCain-Palin ticket has to go on is earmarks, media bias, William Ayers, Ronald Reagan, experience, and taxes, November 4th could be a long night. McCain may well lose this election handily, but the new danger is that he threatens to take Republicans down the ballot with him. For him to right his ship, he needs a new, credible, and unique economic plan--and he needs it now. It is the issue of the election, and there's not a lot of time left to sufficiently address it.

9 comment(s):

Steve Mueller said...

Hey AP,

I enjoyed the post. This one must have been quick to write. I agree that this is election is shaping up much like 1980. The house and senate could potentially be filibuster proof. Much to my surprise, Sarah Palin stopped by neighborhood. Living is just about the reddest state in the union (Nebraska), I was shocked that she came here to Omaha. Then it dawned on me that because of our non-winner take all electorate, Obama has a good chance of winning #2 district.

I voted for McCain in the Republican primary back in 2000. I've always liked the man. To this day, Ben Nelson our Democratic Senator still says wonderful things about him.

Right now, I'm not sold on him. This Candidate McCain is different from Senator McCain or Candidate McCain from 2000.

Candidate McCain from 2000 did not resort to this attacks. I guess some could argue why G.W. got the win.

I don't mind him looking at the past. To me, it seems to keep him grounded. Sometimes, you NEED to look at the past to prevent history from repeating itself.

I would have been sold if he picked up Ben Nelson for VP. (He is retiring anyways)

I'm not sold for Obama either.
His campaign has a young Kennedy feel with stalwart Biden playing LBJ. I feel that he is setting up these seemingly lofty expectations.

I love the alternative energy programs. I believe he is right about Pakistan. If he gets Warren Buffet to be his Treasury Secretary, he is golden.

For me, I see him saying "If you make less than 250K a year you will get a tax cut.
What I hear is "If you make less than 250K a year, I will write you a check if you put me in office.
So me that almost sounds like bribery.

By him saying that health care is a RIGHT.
He says to me "Universal Health Care"
Tricare for everyone. But everybody in the armed forces knows what a hassle subsidized health care is.
I've been to a few VA hospitals. I don't like them.
That is my Universal Health Care does not work.

Kennedy had that same vision in 1960. Look how the 60's turned out.

I'm not trying to rant on about things but what is a leaning person to do?

Black Political Analysis said...

To me the choices are stark. They are about vision: whose vision best reflects an ability to manage today's conflicts and the unforeseen conflicts America will play. Which candidate has a better sense of America's place in the world? Which candidate do you believe will actually think through every permutation of his decisions and not reflexively act? To me, the answer is clear. No president will give you everything you want, but Obama will think before he acts. That's a big improvement over Bush and more than McCain can promise.

Brett said...

I think the comment about "Bomb, bomb Iran" was good, but delivered awkwardly on Obama's part. He also had a weak point on foreign policy - he tried to out-macho McCain on Russia (when both of their stances are actually bad on closer look), but otherwise wasn't too bad. Neither of them, rather sadly, have a view that might be equivalent to the Bush Doctrine for Bush, or what Reagan had in mind when he came into office, but perhaps that is normal for new presidents.

One thing this debate was emblematic of, though, is a kind of narrowness in terms of foreign policy discussion. No questions were about China, or the Far East, and although Obama mentioned borrowing from the Chinese and a side comment about North Korea, he didn't really try to go into depth about whether it was an important area or what the strategic concerns of the US should be. This is rather odd, to say the least, when you consider that the Defense Department thinks that China is going to be one of the top strategic challenges for the US in the area of national security in the 21st century.

Obama really had a high point in health care. He said it was a "right", and if you think about it, it really is. You can't enjoy freedom of speech, or the like, if you are dying of cancer, or wasting away for want of money. That doesn't mean that government has to provide - but it does mean that government should do everything in its power to promote universal health care in the way it promotes the economic welfare of the United States.

Overall, it was a pretty solemn affair - which meant that Obama won. There was nothing to change the race in that debate; no open hostility of the kind that Palin has been stoking, no claims of lies, no obvious gaffes that everyone recognizes, and so forth.

S.W. Anderson said...

Narrow, stale, erratic and cantankerous are all accurate words with which to describe candidate McCain and his approach. But the one that leaps to my mind is unsuitable.

BPA nailed it above, saying McCain lacks vision. He truly does. Wrecking Medicare and Medicaid to make health insurance available to a limited additional number of people, while laying on taxes for those who get employee-subsidized coverage is nothing but a ploy to appear to be doing something for some while mainly benefiting the insurance industry.

And McCain's "vision" for Social Security? I'm sure Phil Gramm and the Wall Street brain trust can explain it — as their next big killing at the American taxpaying public's expense. It would be the mother of all Republican/corporate ripoffs, dwarfing even the Iraq debacle and mortgage crisis combined.

"Such instances threaten to erode McCain's credibility . . ."

That train left the station weeks ago. McCain has no credibility. A whole bunch of people who always vote Republican and those who won't vote for a black man, and those who simply hate Democrats and liberals more than they care about their country, even when the Republican alternative is a menace and obviously not suited to the job, will vote for McCain. But in truth, none of those people will vote for McCain because they think he's credible or has a compelling vision.

Brett said...

I'd say McCain lacks a real vision of what he wants America to be. His whole career has been one of fighting pitched legislative battles all over the spectrum - some of them very good (Campaign Finance, Global Warming, and Immigration Reform), some okay, and some bad (McCain pushed for a complete cut-off and rapid withdrawal in the wake of the 1993 Mogadishu disaster when Clinton wanted to do a six-month withdrawal - something which he apologized for later). He's been a maverick, but rarely a leader. A foot-soldier in the Reagan Revolution, but never a general.

It has bled over into his campaign, as well. We've all seen how erratic he's been; even in good times, he's jumped from crisis to crisis to crisis with no real greater plan to encapsulate them. Is that the type of President we want?

S.W. Anderson said...

Good details there, Brett, including some I wasn't aware of.

I wish now that I had made a running list of all the things McCain has criticized Obama for, only to have it revealed he (McCain) had done the same or a very similar thing himself.

Thomas said...

I have been thinking about how John McCain could have won this year. I don't think he could have. If he ran as the John McCain of 2000, he would have gotten the same result. But instead of George W. Bush beating him, it would have been Mitt Romney beating him. And Mitt Romney would have gone on to lose to Barack Obama by 14 points.

McCain had to run as more of a conservative than what he really is. To win one thing the Republican primary, McCain pretty much gave up any chance he had of winning the presidency. And McCain had stood on his principles, he might not have even made it to Iowa.

All this tells me that the conservative Republican electorate did not see the whole picture this year. They should have allowed a moderate Republican (the John McCain of 2000) to make it through the primaries unscathed this year. That would have been their only chance of winning this year. They blew it.

S.W. Anderson said...

Thomas, we get there a bit differently, but I share your conclusion about what McCain's best chance was.

It would've taken remarkable political and personal courage, but McCain could have called his party back toward the center. Called it away from "make our own reality" lunacy and rejection of science. Called it away from the influence of fundamentalist Christian demagogs and pop-moralist hucksters like William Bennett. Called it away from anything-to-win meanness and dishonesty of the swiftboat and "Obama's a traitor" kind.

McCain could've broken the unwelcome news that what was once so proudly hailed as the Reagan Revolution has deteriorated into Bush-Cheney mendacity, scheming, secrecy and incompetence; into big-money scammers and their scams; into endless, mindless rounds of tax cuts, each adding greatly to the budget deficit and national debt while subtracting exponentially from the number of intelligent, thinking people still subject to being snowed by supply-side/trickle-down con jobs.

In short, in an election year when most Americans desperately want change, McCain could've won credibility for his willingness and ability to bring about worthwhile change by first putting it on the line to change the barrel of rotten apples his party has become.

If he could've pulled that off, he would've had a definite chance.

timothy moriarty said...

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