Last night I watched the first debate between Barack Obama and John McCain downstairs in our residence hall’s commons. We had a group of about forty Faculty Fellows, RAs, and first-years from our building and others. The students were largely pro-Obama it seemed to me: they laughed at McCain’s fumbling of names and groaned when he used his “Miss Congeniality” line a second time. [You can find a transcript of the debate here.]
About a dozen stayed afterward for a discussion of the debate (it was Friday night in New York City, after all), and I was surprised to find that many of them felt that McCain might have “won” because he seemed to get off the better one-liners. Quite a few professed to have had trouble following some of Obama’s answers. Some voiced frustration with both candidates’ reluctance to answer certain questions directly, and some wished that Obama had adopted McCain’s more direct style of attack. One woman, who suspected that McCain’s use of the word “naive” was in fact code for a certain kind of racial condescension, wished that Obama had found a subtle way to make McCain’s age an issue.
Most of the group was reluctant to name a “winner.” So I said that I would go out on a limb and declare that people would end up thinking of Obama as the “winner” of this debate, because he did the thing that he had to do in the first thirty minutes — like Kennedy in 1960, he had to appear “presidential” and lay to rest fears that he was not qualified for the job. The fact that the debate began with a discussion of the current financial crisis didn’t help McCain at all, and even though McCain seemed more comfortable (if a bit testy) during the later sections devoted to foreign affairs, Obama did what he had to do there as well: he showed that he was more than capable of handling the foreign-policy part of the president’s job.
What was missing, I suggested, using a phrase that I dislike but that has become part of the current political discourse, was a “game-changer” that would help McCain regain momentum. Something along the lines of Reagan’s “There you go again . . . ” or Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy” or Al Gore’s notorious sighing and eye-rolling. But there was no signal moment that would be remembered. And in that case, the tie goes to Obama. To use a baseball metaphor: infield hit, safe at first.
The initial focus group reactions and polls seem to confirm my suggestion. CNN posted an article entitled “Round 1 in debates goes to Obama, poll says,” reporting that “a national poll of people who watched the first presidential debate
suggests that Barack Obama came out on top,” adding that “there was overwhelming
agreement that both Obama and John McCain would be able to handle the
job of president if elected.” Not good news for McCain, according to the article:
“It can be reasonably concluded, especially after accounting for the
slight Democratic bias in the survey, that we witnessed a tie in
Mississippi tonight,” CNN Senior Political Researcher Alan Silverleib
said. “But given the direction of the campaign over the last couple of
weeks, a tie translates to a win for Obama.”
Time magazine’s Joe Klein argued that “there was nothing in this debate that was a knockout blow–nothing that should change the current trajectory of the campaign.” And that trajectory favors Obama.
Indeed, one of my faculty colleagues suggested, as our discussion wound down, that Obama supporters should be heartened by a report he heard that afternoon on public radio, which cited an assertion on www.fivethirtyeight.com that if the election were held now, Obama would likely receive 300 electoral votes. By this morning, the site had raised that figure to 317.8.
I did find that heartening, because fivethirtyeight.com is Nate Silver’s site, the site that became famous when Silver outdid all the other pollsters in predicting Obama’s big win in the North Carolina Democratic primary last spring. I wrote about Silver in my post “Baseball and Politics” last June: he is the statistician who developed the PECOTA system of predicting likely success for baseball players based on a new way of thinking about how to contextualize historical data and players’ past performances.
Silver went out on a limb last February and predicted that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would finish 88-74, improve on last year’s record by an astounding 22 wins. Silver based this prediction on a comparison of this year’s Tampa Bay team to the 1994 Cleveland Indians. Silver was right, although in fact he underestimated the Rays’ performance: the Rays won the AL East, beating out the heaviliy favored Red Sox and Yankees, and with one game left to play their record stands at 96-65! Moreover, Silver predicted that Rays’ rookie third baseman Evan Longoria would turn in a “Ryan Zimmerman-caliber performance of 20 to 25 homers accompanied by Gold Glove-quality defense.” As of tonight, Longoria has 27 home runs and 85 RBI and seems to be a lock for AL Rookie-of-the-Year honors.
So if Nate Silver is telling me that Barack Obama is looking good right now, I’m more than happy to take his word for it.
Do you think that Obama is being a little disingenuous by deliberately lowering the level of his language when he addresses the country?
I don’t think a former high-powered Chicago attorney and graduate of Harvard and Columbia says “folks strugglin’ on Main Street” without careful rhetorical consideration.
Maybe a little disingenuous, but I think we all recognize rhetoric like that as a convention of recent political discourse.
Look at the speeches of every president since Reagan, for example, and you’ll see the same attempts at folksiness. Is it any more authentic in George H. W. Bush, famous Yalie; or William Jefferson Clinton, famous Yalie; or George W. Bush, famous Yalie and Harvard Business School graduate?
On the other hand, I know lots of people with Obama’s educational background who regularly drop the G’s of their participles.
It’s hard for me to worry about that level of disingenuousness, when to my mind McCain is setting records in that department.
I’m just reminded of Brutus using prose to speak down to the commoners of Rome in Julius Caesar while Marc Antony used iambic pentameter to raise them up.
But I agree with you–it’s largely irrelevant.
What does matter to me is the way Obama’s stance on Iraq seems to shift from uninterested to uninformed to just plain ridiculous. I feel like he would pull out the instant it would score him political capital no matter the foreign policy implications–the narrow-mindedness of his “bracelet story” was laughable. On the other hand, with a friend bound for Iraq, I believe in McCain’s unapologetic claim to not waste a Soldier’s life. Charles Hurt, writing in the New York Post, said it best:
“Obama will accept defeat if continuing on hurts too much. For McCain, any mission where defeat is an option is a mission not worth fighting in the first place.”
I’m not convinced that Hurt’s and your interpretation of Obama’s stance on Iraq is correct. I think Obama realizes that we have to “win” in Iraq now that we’re there, though he and I are both convinced that the mission was indeed “not worth fighting in the first place.”
I think a better interpretation of his stance is that he believes that the Iraqi government must start to be independent and stand on its own two feet, sooner rather than later — which it will not do if it thinks that the American commitment is open-ended. As far as I can tell, that seems to be the Bush “approach” right now as well.
What amazes me, however, is that no one is talking about a key component of the surge “strategy”: in addition, to sending more troops, we sent over a lot of money — and hired (some would say “bribed”) the Sunni militias that had been fighting against us to fight for us.
If you don’t believe that assertion, take a look (among many possible sources) at this article from the May-June 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs: “The Price of the Surge”. Here’s an excerpt:
What will happen when we are no longer able to pay the militias off? Will the gains of the surge suddenly evaporate?
Moreover, is the same strategy so easily transferable to Afghanistan? The geography of the tribal areas presents a far greater challenge to infiltration than the streets of Iraq’s cities. And the tribes are far more tied to Al Quaeda than the Sunni militias in Iraq ever were.
My real fear about McCain is that his first reaction is always confrontational rather than diplomatic. Teddy Roosevelt famously said that you should speak softly but carry a big stick. McCain’s first impulse seems to me to be to use the big stick and worry about speaking later.
And I simply don’t trust his judgment. I don’t want a president who likes to roll the dice and shoot from the hip. It’s one thing to throw a “Hail Mary pass” when you’re picking a vice-presidential running mate (though I think in the end he’s going to pay for the irresponsibility of that choice), but quite another when you’re talking about how to confront hostile powers. And his shenanigans this week over the debate — I’m suspending my campaign (wink, wink) to return to Washington to work on the crisis (nudge, nudge). What exactly did he “suspend,” other than his appearance on David Letterman’s show? And how exactly did his return to Washington, DC help the negotiations? They seemed to stall precisely when he arrived.
I liked the McCain of 2000 who was indeed something like a “maverick.” The McCain of 2008 has turned his back on that previous self to the point where, frankly, I don’t trust him “not to waste a soldier’s life.” I simply don’t trust his idea of what’s wasteful and what isn’t.
And critical as I am, I’ll still grant that foreign policy is his strong suit! Because his economic plans are nothing more than warmed-over Bush policies and classic Republican laissez-faire trickle-down economics.
McCain models himself after Reagan, and he models his economic policies after Reagan’s too. Well, Reagan left us with a massive budget deficit and oversaw an incredible redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top. The rich really did get richer during Reaganism. George W. Bush has done the same. McCain will no doubt continue the trend. And his assertion that our current economic problems are the result of the actions of a few greedy CEOS is typical of the Republicans’ methodologically individualist approach: it’s not the system that’s the problem; it’s just a few bad apples. At what point are there so many bad apples in the system that one has to admit that it’s the system that is producing them? I’d say that we’re well past that point right now.