2008 My Take on the Debate
posted by October 8 at 12:09 PMon
Well, of course I was disappointed that none of the questions I suggested yesterday came up. But since access to reproductive health care, the prevalence of sexual violence in the military, paid family leave and maternal mortality rates are mere “women’s issues,” I can’t say I’m surprised. What I took away from last night’s debate:
1. John McCain, whatever you think of his politics, is the first Republican in many years (except, perhaps, H.W. Bush) who doesn’t sound like a blithering, lowest-common-denominator, Mickey-Mouse idiot when asked a question about policy. (Unlike his running mate, he also pronounces “nuclear” correctly). That’s one reason these debates have felt more evenly matched than Kerry/Bush, Gore/Bush, Clinton/Dole, etc.
2. On the other hand, McCain certainly did dodder on occasion, His tics—from the constant repetition of his irritating “my friends” mantra, to his weird reference to the CEO of eBay in response to a question about the Treasury Secretary, to his off-putting non sequiturs about hair transplants—highlighted the difference in age between the candidates. Yes, you may have been on a Navy ship with a nuclear plant on board, Senator—but do we really need to be looking for energy solutions in the technology of 40 years ago?
3. Obama’s responses to some class questions struck me as a little out of touch. For example, describing the effect the economic crisis has had on Americans, he told a voter, “Maybe you don’t go out to dinner as much; maybe you put off buying a new car.” I don’t think most middle Americans are going out to dinner much now, if at all; and people who are struggling in this economy certainly have bigger problems than merely having to wait a few months to drop a $20,000 on a new car. On the other hand, his response to the question about what he would cut—$400 billion in tax breaks for corporations—was brilliant: A specific answer that cut directly at the heart of Republican policy and made a mockery of McCain talking points like “earmarks” or “inefficiencies.”
4. One moment that made my head explode: When McCain dodged the question about how he would order three priorities—energy, health care, and education—by responding, “We can attack energy and health care at the same time.” Coming from a guy who couldn’t “fix the financial crisis” and run his campaign at the same time, that’s pretty unbelievable.
5. I’m getting pretty damn sick of hearing about “clean coal” and hybrid cars as “solutions” to climate change. It was nice to hear Obama at least mention efficiency and conservation—“each and every one of us can start thinking about how can we save energy in our homes”—but it’s disappointing to see even the Democratic candidate still portraying the problem of climate change as primarily a problem of individual choice and better technology—as if “American ingenuity” could solve the problem in the absence of radically different government policy. Fundamentally, it ignores the fact that climate change is a global emergency that requires systemic solutions, not a nice little incentive to put on a sweater. More along those lines here.
6. Obama handled McCain’s accusation that he would “raise taxes” with aplomb. One of Obama’s rhetorical weaknesses is that he can be verbose; but his answer last night—”If you make $200,000 or less, your taxes will go down“—nailed it in a single sentence. McCain’s response—an uncomfortable, feeble, awkward laugh, followed by a dodgy statement about how “our best days are ahead of us”—showed exactly how effective Obama’s statement was.
7. However, Obama did miss an opportunity on an audience question about whether health care should be considered “a commodity.” What he should have said: “No, it should be considered a right.” (And not just for kids!) And his statement about his mother—“for my mother to die of cancer at 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital wondering worrying over whether this was a preexisting condition”—came across as oddly canned and stiff, as if he’d been waiting for a way to work it into his speaking points. Finally, he failed to fully take on McCain’s ridiculous claim that his proposal to give a $5,000 tax credit and promote “competition among states” will benefit anyone—noting only that “all the banks go to Delaware,” where regulation is minimal. That’s a good point, but he should have added, “And $5,000 isn’t enough to pay for a week’s hospital stay. We’re talking basic health care for ordinary Americans, not vanity surgeries for people in the top one percent.”
8. Good on Obama for sticking by his initial position on Iraq. Backpedaling now would look like weakness—his concise response (“Getting into Iraq was the wrong judgment”) was exactly what he needed to say.
9. Unfortunately, he failed to adequately explain his overall policy on intervention during a follow-up, talking vaguely of Rwanda and the need to intervene in other countries “when we can do good.” (In a subsequent question about Russia, Obama was similarly vague, asserting that “we have to anticipate things around the corners.”) Military leaders must make decisions with incomplete information and without the benefit of hindsight, and Obama’s failure to acknowledge that made him look a little ill-informed .
10. Overall, I think Obama won. But I don’t think it was as overwhelming a sweep as some of my colleagues (and most liberal pundits) seem to believe. McCain held his own, and Obama—never the strongest debater to begin with—flailed a bit in the town-hall format and lost his stamina in the final 30 minutes or so of the debate.