Obama vs. McCain: Who Won? Short Takes on the Debate

Liliana Segura:

The first problem with this debate was calling it a debate. The second was calling it a "town hall." In the strange, stilted ritual atop the red carpet at Nashville's Belmont University, the studio audience looked less like an inquisitive cross-section of the American public than it did a cast of apolitical drones programmed to deliver canned questions in exchange for canned lines. This was mostly thanks to the rules. The two candidates were literally, according to guidelines agreed upon by the two campaigns, prohibited from addressing each other directly. The result was an hour and a half of parallel speechifying in which disagreements were expressed in terse, passive-aggressive sideswipes by two men who, as McCain might say, clearly "don't like each other very much." In such a format, meaningful discussion -- or even entertaining television -- is fairly impossible.

There was nothing particularly surprising about the content -- or the questions, for that matter, which did nothing but open the door for the candidates to fall back on stump speech material and well-worn pledges; i.e., who is more loyal to Israel, who will capture or kill bin Laden, etc.

There were a few eyebrow-raising moments. One was when McCain proposed, "Let's put health records online" -- a cunning way to offset his own lack of Internet savvy, perhaps, but a comment that no small number of critics will respond to by saying, "Let's start with yours."

More significantly, at a time when Sarah Palin is denouncing Obama's penchant for "palling around" with unrepentant terrorists and McCain TV ads are asking, ominously, "Who IS Barack Obama?" McCain indulged in some pretty blatant fearmongering to discuss, of all things, Obama's economic plan. McCain's line about how "nailing down Senator Obama's various tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to the wall" may have been too colorful to strike fear in Americans' hearts, but when he referred to "Senator Obama's secret that you don't know" to say he will raise taxes, it was pretty clear he's talking about more than money.

It was also surprising to see McCain appeal to the ignorance of the American people, first, condescendingly telling an African-American man who asked a question about the bailout, "I'll bet you, you may never even have heard of (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) before this crisis," and later, in his closing statement, predicting, confusingly, that "we will be talking about countries sometime in the future that we hardly know where they are on the map."

Obama's hawkishness was, as it was in the first debate, alarming. But it was not surprising. Discussing Pakistan, Obama said, "the War on Terorrism began in that region, and that's where it will end" -- a reminder that he plans to perpetuate a foreign policy based on pre-emptive war. "Part of the job of the next commander-in-chief, in keeping all of you safe," he said, "is making sure that we can see some of the 21st Century challenges and anticipate them before they happen."

But there was a redeeming moment on the topic of health care. Asked whether they considered it "a privilege, a right or a responsibility," McCain answered "responsibility," and then peevishly called on Obama to reveal how much he would "fine" people who "don't get the health care policy that (he thinks) you should have." Obama, who has often invoked the notion of "personal responsibility" on the campaign trail to underscore his conservatism, replied deliberately. "In a country as wealthy as ours," he said, people should not have to go bankrupt because they can't pay their medical bills. "I think it should be a right for every American."

Don Hazen: McCain and Obama -- Deja Vu All Over Again

It was deja vu all over again at the Tennessee presidential debate, or perhaps instant reruns after only the first show. The evening was replete with Tom Brokaw as the annoying moderator, inarticulate questions from the audience and the Internet, and the two guys doing the same, same dance, but this time walking around with microphones rather than standing behind a lectern. The candidates repeated verbatim many of the same things they said a week ago. Last night was supposed to have a more lively town meeting format, but instead the affair was rather sedate, leaning toward boring. How many people are going to come back to watch Debate III, with the reruns already playing.

Conventional wisdom is, of course, that McCain is increasingly behind in the race, especially because fear grips the land as economic crisis goes global, and millions are looking at 25 percent or more erased in their retirement funds, jobs disappearing fast, housing values plunging and no light at the end of the tunnel. So McCain had to do something different and dramatic to rejigger the race. But he didn't, or couldn't. He flailed, he swung wildly, but the best he could do was repeat his old lines from the first debate as if he didn't know how to say anything differently -- about how Obama is going to increase taxes, when people now seem to get that the Obama plan will reduce taxes for 95 percent of the population; about how McCain will bring us victory with honor in Iraq, when Iraq has fallen off the radar screen for most voters.

McCain seemed even more the old guy to Obama's "change" message than he did in the first debate. He referred to needing hair transplants, all his years of experience in the Senate, and fond memories of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill finding bipartisan nirvana decades ago. Doesn't he get it that the more he talks about the past, the less he is seen as the man for the future? He tried to pin "earmarks," a multimillion-dollar projector, the demise of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, lack of support for offshore drilling, nuclear reactors, clean coal -- all of this on Obama; but none of it stuck, because Obama had a more believable retort for each accusation. Unfortunately, Obama does support these things: the impossible notion of clean coal, the 10-year, $10 billion disastrous process to build nuclear power, and sadly, offshore drilling, although as Obama subtly points out, drilling is an absurd position on its face, because the United States has 3 percent of the world's oil reserve and consumes 25 percent of the oil supply every year.

One of the only fresh moments of the debate was at the onset, when Obama attacked the executives of the bailed-out AIG for having a bountiful and pricey spa weekend after the company went down the tubes. A momentarily aggressive Obama insisted that the money be paid back and the executives fired. But for the rest of the evening, Obama did exactly what he had to do -- be smooth, calm and presidential, counterpunch effectively and leave very little room between him and McCain on most issues. Obama sounded frequently like a military warrior as he laid out the bellicose terms of relationships with Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Georgia, but still always differentiating himself just enough from McCain -- it is Obama who would talk to our "so-called" enemies and be a global diplomat, while McCain persisted in remaining old school and out of touch.

In a couple of key moments, Obama insisted health care was a right, while McCain thought it a responsibility -- points to Obama. McCain tried hard to tar Obama with health "mandates," while Obama parried him easily, as if the voters cared about labels -- they want better and less expensive health care. Obama will bring it to them, while McCain, with tax credits and new taxes on benefits, will "give with one hand and take back with the other." Thinking about the 90 minutes, and of course my biases, it was really difficult to find a single topic where McCain scored any significant points. So while the contest was no knockout, in the scoring culture of the boxing world, this was a clear-cut, unanimous decision, with only the out-of-touch Pat Buchanan still trying to pretend that McCain was the victor.

According to the quickie polls, McCain actually lost ground in the debate, getting hammered by 20 points as to who won and who would best solve the economic crisis, while on CNN, Obama actually picked up a small number of changed minds. McCain gained none. If my personal experience of him was a fair assessment, McCain came across as a somewhat nasty phony. I counted him referring to the audience as his friends at least 15 times, which seemed as contrived as it was repetitive.

Obama was not above repeating many of his previous lines either, including reminding the audience about McCain's performance of "Bomb Bomb, Iran" to the tune of "Barbara Ann." Yet, it seems bizarre that McCain tried to paint Obama has a zealot in his talk of pursuit of Osama bin Laden, as if that would lose him voters. ( In a point of personal privilege, numerous commentators talked about "Barbara Ann" as the Beach Boys song, but it was written by Fred Fassert and sung first by The Regents in 1961, and it only hit No. 13 on the charts, surprising given its longevity. This song credit situation reminds me of how Joni Mitchell, the creator and first performer of "Chelsea Morning," was constantly screwed because the Clintons, who named their daughter after the song, could only remember the Judy Collins version.)

Arianna Huffington from the Huffington Post:

In Debate II, John McCain twice laid out the criteria for how the American people should judge the candidates: In tough times, we need someone with a steady hand on the tiller.

By that measure, Obama was the clear winner. He was centered where McCain was scattered. Forceful where McCain was forced. Presidential where McCain was petulant.

In the first debate, McCain wouldn't look at Obama. In this one, he referred to him as "that one." The contempt was palpable and unpalatable.

In the run-up to the debate, McCain lowered himself into the sewer in a desperate attempt to portray Obama as dangerous, untrustworthy, a risk too big to take.

But Obama's measured reasonableness totally countered that caricature. You could fault Obama for not being particularly inspiring, but you could not miss the rock-steady competence he exuded -- authoritatively delivering substantive answers to questions on the economy, health care, taxes and foreign policy.

He scored with his history lesson, reminding voters of the economy the Republicans inherited and how they squandered that inheritance.

He scored with his reminder of how much the war in Iraq is costing America and the enormous strain that puts on our economy -- as well as our national security.

He scored when he declared that affordable health care is a "right" of every American and not, as McCain put it, a "responsibility" of … he actually didn't specify who.

And Obama scored big when he gave voice to the vast gulf between the two candidates' -- and the two parties' -- positions on the role of government in our lives, invoking JFK's commitment to put a man on the moon in 10 years as an example of what can be done in fueling a new alternative energy-based economy, and pointing out how government investment played a key role in developing the tech advances that have driven our economy for the last two decades.

McCain, like Palin last week, couldn't decide if government is the enemy or the deep-pocketed benefactor that is going to buy up all the bad mortgages in America.

Is "a government-bought house on every lot" the 21st century equivalent of "a chicken in every pot"?

McCain also provided the debate's strangest moments, twice chiding Obama for backing an "overhead projector" in a planetarium, and raising the idea of "gold-plated Cadillac" insurance policies that pay for hair transplants. Huh?

McCain also told us he knows how to fix the economy, knows how to win wars and knows how to capture bin Laden. Is there a reason he's keeping all these a secret?

The debate ended on a question Tom Brokaw described as having "a certain Zen-like quality:" "What don't you know and how will you learn it?"

Both men used the opportunity to pivot from the Moment of Zen into impassioned but familiar stump speech stories about single moms (Obama) and absent fathers (McCain), about the American Dream (Obama) and the country put first (McCain), about the need for fundamental change (Obama) and the desire for another opportunity to serve (McCain).

At the end of the debate, Brokaw asked McCain to get out of the way of his Teleprompter, so he could sign off.

Brokaw might as well have been speaking on behalf of the future: Senator McCain, can you please get out of the way so we can get on with it?

Andrew Sullivan from AndrewSullivan.com:

This was, I think, a mauling: a devastating and possibly electorally fatal debate for McCain. Even on Russia, he sounded a little out of it. I've watched a lot of debates and participated in many. I love debate and was trained as a boy in the British system to be a debater. I debated dozens of times at Oxford. All I can say is that, simply on terms of substance, clarity, empathy, style and authority, this has not just been an Obama victory. It has been a wipeout. It has been about as big a wipeout as I can remember in a presidential debate. It reminds me of the 1992 Clinton-Perot-Bush debate. I don't really see how the McCain campaign survives this.

Jill Tubman from Jack and Jill Politics: Debate '08 -- Obama Wins Again

Obama wins hands down according to NBC, FOX, CNN, CBS and so on. Though my mama wasn't impressed -- they just say the same things over and over, she says. As for me, I found it strange that no questions about immigration or women's rights (such as equal pay, abortion, child care, the morning-after pill, etc.) have been mentioned in the past few debates. Is this due to some kind of agreement between the campaigns? Has immigration really slipped in our national priorities? Hispanic voters are critical so it seems curious.

McCain was wheezing and struggling to maintain coherency during the debate. Must not have gotten his nap and applesauce in the afternoon. He also managed to be disdainful and disrespectful to Obama, calling him "that one," which raises my hackles and sounded a little too near "boy" for my taste. I'm also told that McCain was reluctant to shake Obama's hand after the debate, but CNN weirdly blocked the view at that moment, choosing to focus on Brokaw, so I didn't see that. Here's the "That One" clip:

Obama managed to get in a few zingers this time and came out strong and swinging. He's usually all Mahalo, Aloha, One Love, so it was clear that McCain wasn't expecting a strong offense and defense from Obama. I liked his answers on Darfur and Pakistan (he pronounced it correctly, which obviously means he's a terrorist!), and I agree with Obama that health care is a right. Health care has become a human rights issue in America -- John McCain doesn't get that. I really loved Obama's closing remarks -- John McCain had no real comeback on personal experience with food stamps. Here's that clip with Barack keepin' it real:

Joshua Holland:

A snap poll gave Obama the edge tonight, 39-27. But I'd say it was a tie. Both candidates again managed to avoid any real specificity, and both worked hard to maintain some of the key illusions that are central to American political culture.

There was no debate around the idea that American foreign policy has been a source of unbridled good in the world; both candidates agreed that we're surrounded by violent evil-doers, including Venezuela and, interestingly, Nigeria. There was concurrence that Iran, which still hasn't invaded another country for over a century, is a vital threat to Israel, an advanced nuclear power that we have to defend at all costs.

It was noteworthy that both candidates agreed that Russian "aggression" in Georgia was completely incongruous with international norms. The hypocrisy, given our actions from Vietnam to Grenada to Iraq, was stunning.

These debates are becoming increasingly banal. In a sense, they're a microcosm of our larger political discourse, with complex issues of great import reduced to meaningless rhetoric and a media -- personified by moderator Tom Brokaw, who appeared more concerned with enforcing the rules of the debate than probing the issues in any substantive way -- that refuse to call out the candidates when their talking points diverge from reality.

Consider a few of the ridiculous statements for which most viewers no doubt lacked context, but which a political journalist with a critical eye might have pointed out.

McCain called for an across-the-board federal spending freeze, except for military spending and veterans' affairs (natch). But less than 40 percent of the federal budget is discretionary spending -- spending that could reasonably be "frozen" -- and the bulk of that, much more than half, is for "defense" and veterans' affairs. It's gibberish, but how many viewers knew it?

Or the idea that drilling offshore could conceivably wean the country off foreign oil -- or even begin to do so. The United States, which ranks 11th in the world in proven reserves -- offshore and ANWAR included -- uses a quarter of the world's oil, and that oil is purchased on a global market. If we were to give more leases to Chevron or Exxon/Mobile, they would turn around and sell them on that same global market.

Obama agreed with the premise that we have to "fix" Social Security, a solution in search of a problem. The myth of a Social Security "crisis" has been well and thoroughly debunked -- but it formed the basis of one of Brokaw's questions (I almost threw something at the TV when Brokaw said that "everyone agreed" on the need for "reform").

When it comes to Medicare and Medicaid, there are real problems of sustainability. But that's something that can only be fixed by revamping America's dysfunctional health care system. The best question of the night, in my view, was whether the candidates viewed health care as a commodity. It was a serious and important question, and one that both men predictably tap-danced around and didn't ultimately touch.

Things are bad in this country, and we deserve a lot better discussion than we've gotten during this campaign (even though I'd concede that it's more substantive than those of recent memory). If I had to choose a winner, I'd say it was Obama on appearances -- McCain seemed fidgety and old, while Obama came off as smooth and authoritative.

But in the final analysis, it's the American public that loses every time matters of great import are reduced to tried-and-true stump-speech zingers.

David Sirota from Open Left:

It's stunning how uncomfortable and uninformed John McCain is when it comes to economic issues. I know it's not his forte, but he's been in the Congress for a quarter century, and was the chairman of the Commerce Committee, so he should have at least a basic command over these issues. He doesn't.

Barack Obama may be the most likeable politician in modern American history. I've always thought that to be the case, from the time I spent a day with him two years ago all the way through the Democratic primary to now. I disagree with him on some issues, and he has really disappointed me at times. But the guy is a terrific communicator, clearly empathetic in a genuine way (as opposed to an annoying Bill Clinton lip-biting way), and he doesn't talk down to people; it makes him a really likeable person. That seemed to especially shine through, as evidenced by CBS News' poll showing a 20-point jump for him on the question of whether he "understands voters' needs and problems."

Isaac Fitzgerald:

I do not trust a person who tries to endear themselves to me before making their intentions clear. On the street, or in a bar, whenever someone I don't know calls me "friend," I figure that person is trying to pull a fast one on me.

John McCain must have said "my friends" a dozen times.

McCain didn't come off as a statesman in Nashville; he came off as a con artist, and not a very convincing one at that. He was shifty, unable to sit still and often wandered around the stage while Obama was speaking. When McCain spoke he was uneven and frequently repeated himself. In a debate setting that was supposed to be McCain's home turf, the town hall, McCain seemed nervous.

And rightfully so, where McCain seemed uneasy, Obama seemed relaxed and comfortable -- one might even go so far as to use the word presidential. Obama's answers were to the point, often focusing on the struggles of working class families. His quips were on target too; when he made a jab at his opponent, or a joke with the audience, his words were well received. McCain's jokes, on the other hand, even when reaching out to his friend Tom Brokaw, fell flat. Much more importantly, McCain made zero mentions of the middle class, just like the first debate. Forgetting to mention the backbone of this country once is a mistake; twice is unforgivable.

When it comes right down to it, debates are all about the portrait each candidate paints of themselves to present to the public. For Obama last night, that picture was an excellent one: a person you could trust. For McCain, it was of someone who dearly wanted to be your friend, but couldn't really explain why.

Ian Welsh from FireDogLake.com: Obama coolly dispatches punch drunk McCain

So, ok, clearly Obama won again. We don't even need to see the polls to know that. He comes across as president already, while John McCain comes across as an angry doddering old man.

Here's what I don't understand. Essentially McCain made the same sort of mistakes he made last time. Not friendly enough, not calm, awful body language and so on. Not a statesman. Not a reassuring elder who's seen it all and who can be trusted to deal with it now.

I don't believe that his handlers don't know this. I don't believe they didn't know this after the first debate. It was dead clear. So, does John McCain not know this? Are they not able to tell it to him? Does he not listen? Why do they not have someone coaching him? Ditch some campaign appearances and spend hours working on his body language, his voice tone and give him answers that are statesmanlike.

Or is John "Maverick" McCain too angry to listen? Too frazzled, too tired, too unable to make a change from a game plan that clearly isn't working. Is it the campaign? Or is it him?

Either way, it's actually kind of sad. What I see in John McCain is an old tired man whose anger doesn't just come from being behind but from having worked beyond capacity for too long. He doesn't have Obama's stamina, nor does he have the sense Obama had in taking a week's holiday to recharge. The best thing that the McCain campaign could do now is to come up with some reason to give him the better part of 3 days off. Let Palin campaign for him, she pretty much does anyway. Let him recover.

I doubt it would matter to the end result, but at least we might not be treated to Obama coolly dismantling what amounts to a punch-drunk McCain who can neither think nor speak straight.

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