The Great Debate
1. We need more debates
2. Condescension is risky
3. McCain connected better emotionally
4. McCain’s experience hit home, but narrowly
5. Obama only partly exposed a vast gap in strategic vision
The long-awaited and recently uncertain first debate is over. Mark Shields and David Brooks, PBS’ respective liberal and conservative commentators, both agreed it was a draw. They also agreed that the draw was a loss for McCain because (1) he is behind (albeit marginally) and (2) foreign policy, the debate’s subject, is supposed to be his strong suit.
The debate was indeed a draw. Both McCain and Obama looked and sounded presidential. Each spiritedly refuted the other’s weakest charges. Neither made a serious gaffe, although McCain mispronounced the name of Pakistan’s current president (Asif Ali Zardari) as “Kadaria” and had trouble pronouncing “Ahmadinejad.” Obama showed his usual mastery of facts, nuance and detail and his commanding strategic vision.
I’m not so sure about Shields’ and Brooks’ second conclusion: that a draw is a win for Obama. That depends upon what undecided voters think. Only someone with Obama’s own superb political judgment could validate the pundits’ conclusion that a draw was a win for Obama.
Apart from the horse race, five points emerge from the debate:
1. We need more debates. After months of mutual frat-boy chop fests, distortions and lies, especially from McCain’s campaign, the debate was a great relief. It was serious, substantive and mostly factual. It showed two extraordinary men. One had a weak education but has wisdom born of long experience. The other has outstanding native wisdom, judgment and intelligence, sharpened by a superb education, but less experience in office.
Both are heavyweights who deserve to be where they are. Both showed they could be president of the United States. McCain made a good case that he would be better and smarter than Dubya as president—hardly a difficult task. To unbiased observers, Obama undoubtedly dispelled doubt about his ability to serve as commander in chief.
After months of cringing at irrelevant and dangerous nonsense, I was relieved that both men debated with the seriousness of purpose and demeanor that our national condition deserves. In the process, they underscored the need for more debates and less media-incited campaign trivia, lest the world and we lose faith in our democracy.
2. Condescension is risky. Condescension was a clear and consistent part of McCain’s debating strategy. He called Obama “naïve” at least twice and said Obama “doesn’t understand” several issues. As the debate ended, he baldly accused Obama of not being qualified for the presidency.
Perhaps McCain believes these charges. Reporters have consistently read him as seeing a young whippersnapper in Obama.
But calling your opponent names is at best a weak and risky debating strategy. It may energize those who have already made up their minds, particularly those who have turned their backs on Obama for reasons of race. But for genuinely uncertain voters, who will decide this election, it makes McCain look negative and weak.
At least that’s the consensus of almost everyone who studies the art of persuasion. Whether the theory works in practice in this instance only more time can tell.
3. McCain connected better emotionally. McCain was effective in moments—and there were several—in which he described his experiences and expressed his convictions with intensity and passion. He did so on such issues as Iran, Russia, Kosovo and Israel.
McCain also produced the best single sound bite of the debate. After referring to Iran’s pretensions to nuclear weapons and attitude toward Israel, he said, “We cannot allow a second Holocaust.”
There was little, if any, daylight between McCain’s and Obama’s stated policies on Israel. But McCain had the affect while Obama was cool and thoughtful.
Obama appeals to Jews like me who—after eight years of misrule from a moron’s gut—prefer a more thoughtful approach. But McCain probably won the hearts and votes of Jews (and there are many!) who view Israel’s security as the paramount issue of American foreign policy. That ploy may eclipse Obama’s chances to win Florida.
To an Obama supporter like me, the difference in passion is worrisome. Michael Dukakis missed his shot at the presidency in part because he treated a hypothetical question about the rape and murder of his own wife as an academic exercise. I would like to see Obama pick a few issues—even if they are “safe” ones on which most voters will agree—to show a little passion.
4. McCain’s experience hit home, but narrowly. On substance, McCain performed best in discussing spending restraint and the War in Iraq. He made a credible case that his veto pen, his abhorrence of earmarks and his history of battling waste in military spending, among other things, would help him bring spending under control. He also made a credible case that he had exercised good judgment in opposing early mismanagement of the war in Iraq and in supporting the surge.
These are issues to which McCain is deeply committed, and his passion was obvious. The source of his concern for Iraq—his desire not to repeat the debacle of Vietnam, which led to his own capture and torture—was also obvious. But McCain failed to convey equal passion and experiential success on other issues, which may turn out to be equally or more important.
5. Obama only partly exposed a vast gap in strategic vision. Like the fighter pilot that he is, McCain has tunnel vision. In speaking so passionately about restraining spending, he neglected other issues. We are not going to restore our economy, repair our failing infrastructure, become energy independent, or win the war against Al Qaeda by making balancing the budget our top national priority.
Similarly, in devoting so much passion and energy to Iraq, McCain gave every evidence of neglecting equal or greater challenges in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, Russia and China. We’re just beginning to understand the disaster caused by Dubya’s monomaniacal focus on a single foreign challenge, and most of us don’t want to repeat the experience.
Obama made this point in rebuttal while discussing Iraq. He also made it more generally at the conclusion of the debate. But his brief statements did not have the impact, for example, of McCain constantly repeating charges of naïveté and lack of understanding.
Obama’s breadth of strategic vision is his key comparative advantage in foreign policy, especially as compared to McCain’s tunnel vision and inconstancy of focus. Whenever McCain speaks on any issue, he treats it as the most important thing in the universe. But he seldom ties issues together, puts them in perspective, or sets priorities. His failure or inability to do so would be a clear handicap in the Oval Office, which Obama and his campaign should relentlessly exploit.
Obama and his campaign need to get these points across in a clear, simple and forceful way. They should repeat them at least as often as McCain does his boasts of greater experience and his lies about being the real agent of change. Obama did some of that in last night’s debate, but he needs to do much more. Strategic vision is the essence of the presidency, and Obama should win any debate about it hands down.
Obama’s abilities to synthesize information and predict consequences are incomparably better than McCain’s. Voters tired of a weak-witted monomaniac in the White House need to understand that. If it takes oversimplification and constant repetition to make the point, so be it. Obama cannot afford to let his key comparative advantage go unnoticed or misunderstood.