Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Debate

So I apologize for not having a post up for a few days. Life has been a little hectic, but hopefully things will slow down just a tad in the near future.    

Last night featured the first of three presidential debates that are going to take place over the next several weeks (there will also be one vice presidential debate this coming Thursday). After some drama created by McCain stating that he may not attend the debate because of the need for him to be on the hill to get a compromise on the bail out bill, the debate itself went rather well for both candidates. The reason for this is that both candidates had different objectives coming into this debate and that made the result, in some ways, a non-zero sum game (i.e. that it was possible for both candidates to win and no one to lose).    

For Obama, success in the first debate was in accomplishing mainly four things: 1) being gaff free; 2) relaying that he is the candidate for change; 3) showing himself to be rational, level headed, and even keeled, while not coming across as aloof; and 4) portraying readiness to president. Obama clearly accomplished all four of these tasks by not getting frustrated when McCain made attacks and coolly refuting the claims made against him with well constructed, but simple, explanations. At no time last night did Obama become flustered and, in fact, many of his prepared responses and exchanges with McCain showed that he is deeply knowledgeable about key economic and foreign affairs issues. 

Obama's theme of the night seemed to be that we have had 8 years of impulsive executive leadership based on feelings and emotion. This leadership style lead us to the current crises we now face, and McCain embodies more of this style of leadership, while I (Obama) am collected, rational, and deliberate.    

As for McCain, success for him last night was also based on mainly accomplishing four things: 1) being gaff-free; 2) distancing himself from Bush on the economy and spending; 3) showing himself to be the candidate who could actually bring change to Washington; and 4) maintaining vigor and energy to assuage fears that his age is an issue. I think McCain pretty much accomplished all of his tasks as well. McCain drove home repeatedly that he is against spending and that he has a record to prove that he can reform Washington. His remarks were well animated  with a great deal of enthusiasm. 

In examining McCain's message of the night, it seemed to be that the voters should trust him on foreign affairs because he has been on the ground and he has surveyed the terrain on which we are going to fight, while Obama “doesn't get it” because he hasn't been there. This was an interesting attack strategy by McCain. I think it would have been very effective if Obama hadn't demonstrated each time that even though his feet may not have been on the ground, he had a very accurate picture of what needed to be done. However, I do think that this type of attack by McCain should play well with the Republican base, so I am sure we will see it used again and again.    

Thus, since both candidates accomplished what they set out to do, in some ways this debate was a win-win for both candidates. One thing to note is that unlike in recent past debates, such as Bush vs. Gore or Bush vs. Kerry, the candidates had to do a lot less to differentiate themselves on the economy and foreign affairs issues. Polls show that not only do voters recognize that Obama and McCain have different views on these issues, but approximately 65% can correctly place the candidates and their views together and provide at least one major difference between them. Thus, I think we saw a lot less time being spent on trying to say “here is how I am different from my opponent” and more time spent saying “this is why I am right.”    

The key aspect to remember of any debate, however, is that unless someone makes a gaff, very few people actually remember what was said. Rather, what people take away from presidential debates are feelings about the candidates and what the candidates represent. It is in this category that I think the edge went to Obama. It was clear from the debate last night that both candidates are for change. But, as we saw at the conventions, McCain is for change by fighting and defeating those who are resistant to change; he said he would be the sheriff of spending, veto every spending bill he deems no good, and make Washington change by bringing the fight to them. By contrast, Obama is for change by bring people together to work out differences and make compromises; he repeatedly stated that he understands that there are deep divisions, but that the president's job is to bridge these gaps, not to increase them. History has clearly shown that both strategies can be effective in the right situation.   

However, in today's political climate, the idea that voters want more division and fighting in politics seems silly. We have had 8 years of very derisive politics, and the situation created by the Bush era is unlikely to be fixed by the next president simply wielding a big stick. Rather, it is going to take carrots and compromise to really bring change to Washington. This notion of how to bring change is in many ways really the heart of the election. It could just be me, but my gut tells me at this decision node, voters don't want change through force, but through reconciliation that brings people together.    

Traditionally, debates do not have a huge effect on how people will vote unless one of the candidates makes a huge mistake. However, debates are important because they give voters a chance to not only hear the candidates’ issue positions side by side, but also their tone and message. While I don't think last nights debate will have any real impact on who votes for whom, it did reinforce what type of leadership style voters have to choose from in the next election. 


pme said...

Have you checked out the Dan Rather interview with Nate Silver from I thought it was quite insightful. (The video can be found at

R.P. McMurphyDBB said...

Yeah it was great! Plus as a mets fan I love that the interview took place in Shea.