University of Mississippi
Moderated by Jim Lehrer
Available for download via iTunes in the Video: 2008 Presidential Debates Video Podcast by CBS
Post-debate analysis always centers on defining the "winner" and "loser" of the debate. Often, this is really in the eye of the beholder--supporters will find a reason to believe their candidate "won." Last night's debate, though, left much to be desired of both candidates. Here are some basic observations and thoughts about what helped--and hurt--the two senators.
Pros: Seemed entirely awake and alert throughout the night. Stayed poised and collected, for the most part. Spoke clearly and simply, for the most part. By calling Senator McCain "John" throughout the debate, suggested the idea that they are colleagues and, by extension, equals thus chipping away at the image of McCain as the political veteran. His running mate accepted the invitation to appear on TV after the debate to field questions.
Cons: Never really pounced on McCain and delivered a coup de grace. By Rudolph Giuliani's count, Obama said he agreed with McCain eight times during the foreign policy portion of the debate. While I am loathe to reduce our political ideologies to sound bites, Obama never really had a standout remark through the night, either. I am left, barely twelve hours after the debate, with little sense of what Obama actually pushed forward.
Pros: Time and again in the foreign policy portion, McCain shared examples of places he's been (recently) and name-dropped foreign dignitaries with whom he has discussed how to handle global issues. Each time, he repeated that "I know how to get this done" and "I've been doing this a long time." Those assertions--and their supporting evidence--never really were challenged by Obama. Also, he had the single best line of the night (and the only memorable one) when, after Lehrer prodded Obama to address his remarks directly to McCain in the first segment of the debate, McCain asked, "Were you afraid I couldn't hear him?"
Cons: McCain's wit suffered from the rules of the debate, which prohibited those in attendance from responding to his several throw-away jokes (though he did elicit a moment of laughter near the end of the debate). We've all seen comics bomb on stage, and that creates the idea that the speaker is in over his head. Several times, it also appeared that McCain's thoughts were jumbled, as though he were up past his bedtime. Furthermore, the party's decision to send Giuliani--and not Sarah Palin--to field questions on TV after the debate added further credence to the claims that the McCain/Palin ticket is an old man past his prime running with a soccer mom out of her league.
Pros: Never really asked any softball questions of the candidates, and kept the debate moving through some very serious topics which no one should expect could be entirely properly addressed in the span of a cumulative nine minutes.
Cons: Lehrer asked early in the debate how the current bailout plan would impact each candidate's platform proposals. Obama responded that it would be impossible to know next year's budget until next year--an entirely reasonable and fair response. Lehrer kept after the two, wanting an answer along the lines of, "Well, Jim, what I said about helping poor kids go to school? Yeah, that's a goner." Casual viewers will claim that Obama hemmed and hawed his way out of answering the question--and that McCain held back, letting Obama hem and haw for him--but the truth is that both candidates have ideas about what to do with the budget that involve slashing funding for programs each finds frivolous. Until the next president is sworn in--three long months from now--there is really no way for either candidate to know what kind of budget restraints he'll have.
Lehrer's questions were streamlined, but he wasted too much time on the aforementioned quest to get each--or, later, either--candidate to say outright what proposals he had previously brought forward would be sacrificed to the bailout plan. For that matter, the entire economy section was really about the bailout plan. Yes, it is important, but as Obama stated, there are other questions that must be asked--and addressed--about how we got to this point. Unfortunately, Lehrer never asked those questions.
This more academic style debate format often favors an experienced debater, and often fails to give us "good TV." Last night, the format favored neither candidate; McCain's sense of humor fell flat without proper, reactive laughter and Obama was left giving excerpts of his campaign speech. A different format should favor both candidates. Before they go at it again, though, we get the singular Vice Presidential debate on Thursday, 2 October 2008 between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. If, of course, Palin gets permission to attend.