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Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Notes on the First Presidential Debate

. . . which I watched this week instead of last week, thanks to the Internet.

Now that I've watched the first presidential debate, which aired live last Friday evening, I have some notes for you. Note that this is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive account or analyis of the 90-minute affair; if you want that level of knowledge you can watch it yourself.

Please note also that I am not an unbiased observer, if there is such a thing, and I certainly did not tune into the debate for the purpose of deciding for whom to vote. I think a John McCain presidency might have some good points but will also be very troublesome in some important ways. So I'm voting for him, because I expect a Barack Obama presidency to be a  full-on economic and political disaster.

On the other hand, I'm still just getting used to thinking of Senator McCain as my guy in this election, so I'm not a rabid McCain partisan. In fact, I'm only lately learning to think happy thoughts about the man's politics.

I've picked up some chatter since Friday about how the debate went: McCain won. Obama won. They fought to a draw. A draw helps Obama. A draw helps McCain. McCain won the second half, on foreign policy, but Obama won the first half, on the economic crisis, and that's the half people watch. McCain was distant; McCain was down to earth. Obama was personable; Obama was condescending and arrogant. McCain talked to the moderator; Obama talked to the camera. That sort of thing.

Here's what I think, relatively briefly.

First, as to manner, I didn't find Senator Obama condescending and arrogant, except once or twice when he completely ignored the moderator telling him his time was up and went on talking for a good long while. I didn't find Senator McCain distant. I was surprised how many times Obama said things like, "Senator McCain is absolutely right." I doubt he'll use that tactic in the next debate. Senator McCain's equivalent phrase was, "What Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand . . ." -- which works for you if you're a McCain supporter, and doesn't if you're for Obama. If you're undecided, maybe . . .

The most overused phrase by both sides in the campaign right now is "Main Street" -- the opposite of Wall Street. You can see why they're using it, but it's not a great choice of phrase, because in many cities Main Street has been comatose for years. Its mortal threat is not new, unlike the present financial crisis. I hope they'll move on to the next catch phrase soon.

Second, as to the current crisis, I found Obama relentlessly partisan, very light on the facts, and possessed of (possessed by?) childish, shallow, zero-sum views of economics. I thought McCain missed an opportunity to slam Obama hard on his personal connection to the crisis and the fact that this crisis has roots much further back in time than the beginning of the George W. Bush administration.

I'm tempted to make a promise I may never have to keep: I'll vote for the first Democratic presidential nominee who is willing to look at history and admit that cutting taxes really does raise revenues, as a rule. They don't have to praise Ronald Reagan to do this; they could praise John F. Kennedy. I'll think about it.

Third, as to foreign policy, Obama hammered the tired fiction that Afghanistan and Iraq are separate wars -- until he found it rhetorically necessary to speak of them as connected -- but he didn't engage in the popular but fallacious rhetoric of the "Bush Lied, People Died" variety, somewhat to my surprise. Maybe there's evidence of actual research here. He seemed rather too eager to claim credit for recent successes in Iraq, when his own plan would have pulled our troops out of Iraq when we were losing the war. And I thought McCain ran circles around him generally in this policy area -- on Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, and Iran in particular -- and even had him briefly on the ropes a couple of times. Still, this was not a clear enough victory to shake the preferences of Obama supporters.

The one real howler -- at least the one where I couldn't resist howling very slightly -- was when Obama was talking up the continued strength of al Qaida. It's five years later, you see, and "they are still sending out video tapes." Let's see if I understand his narrative. Seven years ago they flew three jumbo jets into high-profile American targets and one into the soil of western Pennsylvania. We weakened them for a while, Obama says, but we "took our eye off the ball," and we've let them make a comeback. They're sending videotapes!

Hijacked airliners then, videotapes now. Let's call that a win for the good guys, shall we, at least for the time being?

Fourth, as to the moderator, I thought Jim Lehrer did an excellent job. He makes it look easy, but it's not easy. I've done it -- not at that level, of course. And he was fairly evenhanded, which is more than folks have lately learned to expect from the moderator of tomorrow's vice presidential debate, Gwen Ifill, who has a substantial personal financial interest in Obama winning the election. Stay tuned.

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