Six Short Takes on Why Obama Came out Ahead in the Debate

Election '08
Joshua Holland:

In the first head-to-head debate of the 2008 campaign, the financial crisis dragged what the McCain camp had hoped would be fought in the GOP nominee's comfort zone -- foreign policy and national security -- squarely into the realm of domestic policy.

Moderator Jim Lehrer made a smooth transition to the voters' top concern in this election, saying that we were facing a potential meltdown of the global economy, which was by definition a matter of "national security."

What followed was a microcosm of the 2008 race: Barack Obama dominated John McCain when the focus of the debate was on the domestic sphere and a fast-deteriorating financial sector, but ceded an enormous amount of political space to McCain on national security, accepting much of the Arizona senator's overarching neoconservative narrative that the United States is surrounded by mortal danger and evildoers and has a moral duty to maintain our forces in Iraq and elsewhere in order to defend the homeland.

McCain appeared twitchy and out of touch as the debate began with the banking meltdown and the Bush-Paulson plan to reverse it. He blinked rapidly and avoided eye contact with Obama, Lehrer and the audience as Obama came out swinging against McCain for enabling the "root causes" of the crisis to develop during decades in the Congress, including a long stint on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Obama articulately condemned what he called a "philosophy that says that regulation is always bad," and blamed its pervasiveness for the economic mess. McCain, moments before saying that we have the "greatest workers in the world" (and that the United States is simultaneously the "greatest importer" and "greatest exporter" in the world), tried to shift blame from Wall Street to Main Street -- from predatory lenders and fast-and-loose brokers to those who find themselves with a home on the bubble today.

It's a losing strategy.

Obama, on the other hand, must be extremely confident that this election will be decided on the economy, as he failed to challenge McCain on his belligerent stance toward the rest of the world.

He conceded that the "surge has worked" -- it has not. He tried to go toe to toe with John "Bomb, Bomb Iran" McCain on the evils of Iran. He called Venezuela a "rogue state." He engaged in a bit of fearmongering himself, saying that while he supports missile defense -- a boondoggle if ever there was one -- the greatest threat we face is from suitcase nukes.

As Obama agreed with so much of McCain's worldview, McCain's discomfort disappeared, and he landed several good knocks on Obama. He repeatedly called him "naive."

But, in the final analysis, a day after Washington Mutual went down in flames, I doubt that it'll be enough to get McCain out of the hole in which he finds himself.

Don Hazen:

If you were an Obama champion and wanted McCain to fall flat, you were disappointed. McCain is a tough, pugnacious debater, and he tried to control the talk time, going on and on. He's knowledgeable, and as we know, he whipped all of the Republicans during the primaries. But the big picture is that McCain probably had to do better since he is behind on the momentum and had to beat Obama with his supposed strength -- foreign affairs -- and there is a consensus among the commentators that he didn't do that.

If you reflect more on the meta or emotional level, McCain spent most of his time talking about the past and focused on Iraq -- making sure everyone knew that we had to win. That was the most important point he needed to make. But if this election is about change, then McCain reinforced his role as part of the problem. For most of the public, Iraq is past tense. Sixty percent think the economy is the key issue. And in terms of bread and butter, the numbers that people are likely to remember are not the $18 billion earmarks discussion, but rather the fact that 95 percent of the population will get a tax cut with Obama -- everyone who makes under $250,000. Meanwhile, the figure associated with McCain is likely to be $300 billion in tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, while we have a huge deficit. Obama had to make kitchen table points stick, and he seemed to achieve that, repeating these points several times.

The pundits were also speculating that independent voters didn't like McCain's condescension and repeating that Obama "doesn't get it." Here McCain could be seen as the cranky older guy, sounding a little insecure, while Obama didn't rise to the bait. In fact, Obama agreed with McCain a number of times, suggesting that Obama was more capable of working across the aisle.

McCain, by repeating that he wasn't Mr. Congeniality, seemed to undermine his message that he was a conciliator, something the independent voters seem to want more of.

Jane Hamsher from FireDogLake:

McCain controlled the debate tonight. He came off as a brittle, grumpy, mean-spirited old coot, but on the economy -- which should have been Obama's strong suit -- McCain managed to divert the conversation to tax cuts and kept Obama off the kitchen table issues, where he excels. McCain was allowed to paint himself as a crusader for reform, and no mention was made of the Keating 5 -- though Obama did manage to tie him to voting for all of Bush's budgets. (McCain's only rejoinder was to refer to himself repeatedly as "no Miss Congeniality." Huh?)

But the biggest problem for me was that McCain had a grab bag of adjectives he consistently used to characterize Obama -- "naive, inexperienced" -- and every time he repeated them, it was like money in the bank. He worked them in at every opportunity, and their cumulative effect wore into Obama as the evening went on. Obama missed the opportunity to do the same and characterize McCain as brittle, rash, impulsive and out of touch. His critiques were all over the place, and his failure to tie them together into a coherent narrative about McCain meant that he never really grazed the old buzzard.

The good news? Well, McCain sounded bitter and looked hunched over and mean. He wasn't likeable, and most of the Monday morning quarterbacks on my TV seemed to agree. Obama can definitely recover in the next debate -- he didn't have any kind of major falter. And on the plus side, I've had the feeling that up until now, Obama really didn't dislike the man -- not the way he did Hillary Clinton anyway. But behind Obama's superbly controlled mien tonight you could see that McCain's patronizing tone and open distortions were really pissing him off.

The anger seemed to focus Obama. His "ums" and "uhs" stopped, and he delivered his points with more conviction. Even if he doesn't give it full expression, being a little hot under the collar suits him.

The idea that you can run against a Republican for national office and remain above the fray was a nice one, but it isn't realistic. Obama needs to stop agreeing with McCain and reinforcing his message. It doesn't make him look statesmanlike; it makes McCain look right.

McCain really has nowhere to go except to get more obdurate and bellicose. If Obama can get his footing in the next debate and decide on a tactic for getting under McCain's skin, the cranky old hothead won't be hard to pin.

The Nation's John Nichols:

A blistering economic crisis may be the all-encompassing issue of the moment.

But the war in Iraq still defines the difference between John McCain and Barack Obama.

McCain remains the true believer in that occupation, the man who really does want to carry it forward until some ill-defined "victory" is obtained -- even if that takes a hundred years.

Obama remains the doubter who -- as he went out of his way to note in Friday night's first debate between the two men who would be president -- spoke out against launching the war six years ago and remains committed to drawing it down.

These were the bottom lines of a debate that could have been all about economics but that ultimately ended up being a very serious, and at times very edgy, discourse about war and peace. McCain called Iraq "the central issue of our time."

At the very least, it was the central issue of the debate.

The Republican said his Democratic rival "just doesn't understand" the importance of staying the course in the Middle East.

Obama argued that McCain lacks "the broader strategic vision" necessary to make the United States a functional player on the global stage -- and at home. And he suggested that the Republican's misread of the Iraq question all the way back in 2002, as well as his ongoing refusal to recognize his error, confirmed McCain's deficiency.

Read more of Nichols' take.

Blogger Taylor Marsh:

From the start of the debate, John McCain wouldn't meet Barack Obama's eye. At the end of it that hadn't changed, even as Obama gave McCain his due time and again, which the McCain camp has already turned into a video. It was the difference of someone being small, compared to someone revealing his confidence, while showing presidential temperament. On that alone, Obama "won" hands down.

Hillary Clinton weighs in:
Tonight Barack Obama displayed beyond a doubt that he understands both the gravity of the financial crisis facing America and the challenges we face in Iraq and around the world. Senator McCain offered only more of the same failed policies of the Bush administration. America deserves better.
I stood next to Barack Obama in 22 debates, and tonight epitomized why millions are joining me in standing with him and working hard to ensure he is the next president of the United States.
Obama's goal tonight was to simply become an equal to the "legendary" foreign policy man McCain. He accomplished that (live blogging here) while showing unending patience with his opponent, who continually displayed the politics of condescension, bordering on petulance that is unbecoming of anyone at this level of political prowess. I can't imagine that independents appreciated McCain's sniping, and I bet they also saw that he was about to pop about half of the time.

McCain needed a win, in my opinion. This was his "issue" night. He didn't get it.

Obama needed to stay even with the "legendary foreign policy expert." He did that and more, while remaining unruffled throughout.

McCain didn't get the knockout he needed. Obama held his own and showed the right stuff. Plus, McCain looks like yesterday. Obama represents the future. Good night for our side.

Musician Sheryl Crow from the Huffington Post:

I am still slightly dumbfounded by what I feel was an out-and-out victory for Barack Obama. Anyone who knows me knows I am an Obama supporter, but knowing I would be blogging for the Huffington Post tonight, I tried to watch this debate with complete objectivity. However, if I were to grade this debate on clarity, leadership qualities, values and a vast understanding of foreign affairs, I would have to give Obama a far higher grade. I think I feel the same as most Americans when I say I am beyond tired of hearing John McCain sell this war and passing it off as great leadership. Even on the issue of Russia, McCain tried to paint Obama as being unknowledgeable on foreign issues. It is clear that McCain is well traveled outside of the United States and has a vast understanding of foreign affairs; however, Obama did not give an inch.

On every question, I felt Obama answered with clarity and thoughtfulness. I felt McCain gave us a lot of his stump quotes when talking about the war and the failing economy -- quotes like "I'm not known as Miss Congeniality," and the two letters Eisenhower wrote illustrating accountability, and his reminding us that he is known as the "Maverick."

Obama clearly illustrated his in-depth understanding of foreign affairs. While McCain has an immense amount of experience in the military, there was never a moment that I perceived him as a level-headed peacekeeper but instead looked like the same kind of defensive leader we've had for the last eight years. While Obama was talking about Afghanistan, McCain was still selling the surge and the idea of "winning the war," a war that no one feels can be won. McCain's entire message revolved around Iraq. He seemed to be in complete denial that our country is in a much less secure status than before 9/11, while it is clear that we have thrown a rock into a beehive.

I never once heard McCain mention our failing educational system. He kept his mantra that Obama does not understand, which I felt only showed that McCain simply doesn't understand. McCain tried to wrap up the debate by saying Obama doesn't have the experience that McCain has or what it takes to lead this country. At that point, McCain talked about how we cannot have another leader who is not flexible; he completely disqualified himself. It was a cry of desperation from a man who has been historically linked to the failing policies of George W. Bush.

I think while both candidates successfully argued their positions on sitting down with leaders of rogue nations, I felt that Obama proved his point that the policies of the past have not served us. McCain seemed to promise more of the same, which continued to illustrate his "stubbornness and inflexibility" -- the words he later warned the nation about in choosing Obama as president. To me, McCain proved himself as the stubborn one. It felt like he was simply stuck in the past.

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