Saturday, September 27, 2008

the first debate

I thought McCain landed more punches but Obama won on style--better prepared, more relaxed (McCain looked tired, as he did in Media, definitely needs some rest), and basically tied on the substance although it depended what they were talking about. Since Obama is ahead overall, and since this was a debate in his weaker substantive area, one would think it bodes well for him. But it's hard to predict voter reactions: if Obama was more didactic, McCain was more emotive, and the basic rule of politics is that emotions are stronger than logic (and negative emotions most of all). We'll see.

It will be interesting to see if McCain keeps going after Obama's inexperience in future debates. Most observers seemed to think this was his strongest point, particularly when he made a substantive assertion (on Iraq, Afghanistan, whatever) and Obama said, "yes John, I agree." The McCain strategy appears to be that people will prefer the teacher to the pupil, especially in difficult times. But the strategy also risks appearing mean and condescending: one wonders if Obama will come out with a "there you go again"-type remark and deflate McCain in one of their later meetings.

Not to be repetitive, but I think the debate also shows how the Republican ticket has been hurt by the failure to emphasize more specific reform proposals. Imagine if McCain had put together, in advance, a really detailed strategy for the Wall Street bailout--say, "I don't think we should spend a dollar until the people who caused this mess have been brought in to testify"--and contrasted it with Obama's middle-of-the-road approach. Instead, McCain has cultivated a tough-guy image on the bailout but has been disappointingly vague on the specifics, sacrificing a good opportunity to contrast his hard-nosed attitude with Obama's more cautious approach. (He could also point out that Wall Street contributions have gone disproportionately to Obama, which they have). But again, it's still early, and McCain's effort to recast the race as doer vs. talker may yet bear fruit.


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