The debate between John McCain and Barack Obama was pretty tepid, but it was good (and important) enough to warrant analysis. Partisans will definitely think "their guy" won, and each candidate provided the other with sufficient ammunition to claim victory.
What McCain Didn't Do for Obama
The Democrats wanted McCain to foam at the mouth like a rabid dog. He didn't. Instead, he came across as a senior statesman, offering tons of personal stories about handling problems in the past and even regretting some decisions. Several media outlets are making hay about him not making eye contact with Obama. I guess I was too bored to notice that.
What Obama Didn't Do for McCain
McCain needed Obama to look unsophisticated and raw. He didn't. He looked convincing on the stage.
Obama had the audacity to renew his argument that going to war was a bad decision. I agree that it was a bad decision, but choosing Joe Biden, who voted for the war, as a running mate diminishes the force of Obama's antiwar critique.
I was surprised that McCain raised the "experience" argument, which had defined much of his campaign against Obama until Sarah Palin's selection. Palin has a very skimpy resume, and most people believed that McCain had discarded the experience argument. Well, it's back, and it is now coupled with "you just don't get it" or "you are naive." McCain has begun to usurp Obama's slogans and use them against him ("change" and "you just don't get it").
McCain missed the opportunity to expose Obama's inconsistency with respect to the war (saying it was a huge error, but picking Biden as a running mate), and Obama missed the opportunity to neutralize McCain's experience argument by either mentioning Palin or somehow showing that McCain's experience is a bad thing. He did this with Clinton in the primaries, but he was unable to do that during last night's debate.
Obama said that Henry Kissinger does not disagree with the President of the United States speaking with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "without conditions." This actually came up during Sarah Palin's recent interview with Katie Couric. Couric did a "gotcha" on Palin, asking whether she thought Kissinger was naive (a charge McCain/Palin made of Obama) for wanting talks with Iran without conditions. Palin said that Kissinger, who advises McCain and Palin on foreign policy, does not believe this. Couric said that CBS had confirmed that he does. Gotcha!
Obama used the same argument during the debate, and McCain rebuffed him, saying that his "friend" does not support that position. Following the debate, Kissinger released a statement agreeing with McCain. Ouch. Well, not a huge ouch, but ouch. Turns out, he would support other governmental officials meeting with lower level Iranian officials, but not with either country's president, absent conditions. So this is the "Bush Doctrine" redux. Political scientists do not even agree what such a doctrine looks like (or even if it exists). Another failed gotcha.
McCain still cannot pronounce Ahmadinejad on the first try. Bless his heart.
Overall: Slight Nod to McCain
During the primaries, I watched the Democrats debate incessantly; so there was probably nothing Obama could have done that I had not already seen. I did not watch the Republicans during the primaries; so I was eager to see how McCain would perform. Although Democrats have portrayed McCain as a curmudgeon, he did not come across that way. This scores him major points, I believe, and makes any more argumentation on that issue look petty. Obama, however, did not look inept and raw, but still remains vulnerable to that charge, due to his relative lack of experience compared to McCain. Of course, if McCain emphasizes experience, then Palin becomes even more vulnerable than she already is.
I do believe that the public will probably declare McCain the winner, if they follow standards from previous presidential debates. As a good progressive, I was thoroughly convinced that Al Gore and John Kerry won their debates against Bush. Apparently, they did not sell themselves well to the public. Obama is his own candidate, but in many ways, he excites the same demographic as Gore and Kerry, but even more intensely. Highly-educated, coastal, liberal, professional types (like myself) will think he slaughtered McCain. To the rest of the country, he might have appeared a bit like a "know-it-all" (distinct from "uppity") and pious. Here's a message for highly-educated, coastal, liberal, professional types: you have to exit your own skin to try to appreciate this analysis.
These same portrayals tanked Gore and Kerry. In losing, they both were described as too bookish and self-righteous. Yet elite Democrats still seem incorrectly to believe that intellectual depth and nuance and the morality of liberal social democracy are winning arguments in presidential elections. If this were the case, then Gore and Kerry would have won, and Obama would be leading McCain by double-digits, especially given the tragedy of the war and the horrific economic conditions. The fact that the race is close should cause Democrats to rethink their presidential election strategies. Race has something to do with the closeness of the election, but it does not explain it altogether. The last two contests were close, as was Clinton's victory in 1992.
Although last night's debate was lackluster, next week's vice presidential debate could offer a lot of pizazz. The combination of Joe "Loose Cannon" Biden and Sarah "the Moose" Palin is too rich to ignore. Tune in next week for more analysis.