The first debate

My thanks to my friend Renee, who invited a whole bunch of us over to her house last night to watch the first presidential debate between Senators McCain and Obama. It is more fun to watch debates in the presence of other likeminded people. If you are a political junkie like me, the first presidential debate is the highlight of your political year. This year it is hard to imagine a debate where the issues mattered more. There as always was the stoic Jim Lehreh at his desk facing the candidates, two podiums and an audience full of eerily silent people lurking in the dark.

As theater, the debate did not quite meet my expectations. I only grudgingly give it a C. I came prepared for a good verbal swordfight but with a few exceptions, nothing like blood was shed. It soon became clear that Barack Obama was going to be gentlemanly throughout, no matter what mud was slung his way. If you are trying to appear presidential and bipartisan, this is likely a good strategy but makes for ho-hum television. Still there were so many missed opportunities to hit McCain. Obama reiterated the obvious ones, like McCain’s support for the Iraq War and his tendency to vote the party line. I guess it would have looked mean spirited to inflict too many wounds. McCain after all is an ex-POW and was tortured by the North Vietnamese. Perhaps Obama figured he should not suffer too much.

Frankly, I had far more fun watching and listening to Senator McCain than Senator Obama. The frequent split screen shots were quite revealing. I figure McCain must have cracked a molar from pressing his jaws so tight. While obviously trying to hide his true feelings, McCain’s face was actually a window into his soul. Basically, he was seriously pissed. For the most part, he could not actually come out and act pissed so instead we got many half smiles that looked totally fake while inside you could see that major earthquakes were going on. There were times when I felt certain that McCain was fantasizing about walking across the stage and giving Obama a shiner. It was perhaps borne out by his inability to look at Obama during the debate, and his halfhearted handshake before and after the debate itself.

Not that I was planning to vote for McCain anyhow but his body language and screwed up face just confirmed for me that I want neither he nor his vice presidential pick to have their hands anywhere near our nuclear launch codes. When he did criticize Obama, it was in a mean and condescending way: poor little Barack, he is so dangerously naïve and inexperienced.

Obama was, in a word, unflappable. For McCain, debating Obama turned out to be like being at a carnival game booth where you keep trying to hit the moving ducks and you find out that you never came close. Obama was consistently measured, respectful and when he criticized McCain, it was always based on the facts.

It was also hard not to contrast their styles. Obama has a broad and natural grin that just radiates sincerity. McCain looked like he had an inflamed hemorrhoid. You could see that at times not all his neurons were firing in the proper order. His sentences often rambled and his thoughts were not always coherent. He frequently repeated himself. He went on and on about earmarks, as if cutting them would seriously address federal spending. Puh-lease. If you really want to cut federal spending you have to cut Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, and neither of them are suicidal. Obama slipped up a few times too. He called McCain “Jim” at one point but quickly corrected himself. As a master speaker, McCain was wholly outclassed.

The pundits are suggesting that neither McCain nor Obama won the debate, but of those who had an opinion, Obama generally got higher marks. Who won really matters little. What matters is: did the debate change the dynamics of the race? Various focus groups of independent voters watching the debate showed that overall Obama did a better job of wooing independents than McCain. I doubt the polls will change much as a result of the debate but if they move at all, they will move toward Obama.

Overall, McCain performed better than I expected. While rambling and incoherent at times, I heard less of it than I anticipated. Moreover, there were times when he looked genuinely sincere and thoughtful. Those times though were few and fleeting. Behind in the polls, he felt the need to sling as much mud as he could at Obama to see if any of it stuck. In my opinion, none of it landed. In this jousting match, neither rider was thrown off their horse. Obama had McCain reeling a few times but McCain managed to stay on. McCain hit Obama’s armor a few times but neither he nor his horse had to check their stride.

Most of us were hoping that both candidates could be pinned down on the current economic crisis. Neither McCain nor Obama rose to Jim Lehreh’s bait, and gave circumspect replies that basically did not tell us how they felt about the package beyond some principles they wanted to see in the final legislation. Both seemed anxious to weasel around the question. That was disappointing but perhaps not wholly unexpected given that the issue is in such flux now. What legislation that finally emerges at this point is anyone’s guess.

The vice presidential debate next Thursday is likely to be far more entertaining.

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