Some thoughts on last night’s debate:
On Taxes: John McCain definitely had a clear mandate for this debate: make Barack Obama seem like a tax-crazy, big-government socialist. Invoking Joe Six Pack’s cousin, Joe the Plumber, McCain tried to portray an Obama administration as one that would force “Joe the plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business.” In the following exchange, Obama admitted that he disliked paying taxes. McCain’s response?
Senator Obama: Look, nobody likes taxes. I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself. But ultimately, we’ve got to pay for the core investments that make this economy strong and somebody’s got to do it.
Senator McCain: Nobody likes taxes. Let’s not raise anybody’s taxes, OK?
Instead of offering that cheeky response, McCain could have said, “True, nobody likes taxes, and true, some taxes are necessary for the infrastructure of America. BUT, the fundamental difference is that you believe the government can best grow the economy, and you have to pay for your big government through raising taxes. On the other hand, I believe that the American people and the free market can best make those core investments and rebuild our economy. By taking money away from the people, and putting it into the hands of the government, you’re sacrificing efficiency and growth, and that is not what we need.” That would’ve been a better response for a conservative Republican than, “Well, no one likes taxes, so I don’t want to raise them.”
On Negative Ads: McCain started out strong, even with his frequent references to Joe the Plumber. But he really got sidetracked with Bob Schieffer’s question about negative ads: it was pretty clear that this question favored Obama. After all, Obama’s references to McCain (“erratic,” “out of touch,” “lie,” “angry,” “losing his bearings”) were softballs compared to the extremely negative stuff that the McCain campagin was hurling at Obama: “disrespectful,” “dangerous,” “dishonorable,” “he lied,” “palled around with terrorists.” McCain did himself no favors by bringing up the subject of his highly-publicized rallies, where crowds were calling Obama a terrorist, yelling “kill him”, and shouting racial slurs. Obama, to his credit, mostly deflected attention off the negative:
Senator Obama: The important point here is, though, the American people have become so cynical about our politics, because all they see is a tit- for-tat and back-and-forth. And what they want is the ability to just focus on some really big challenges that we face right now, and that’s what I have been trying to focus on this entire campaign. We can have serious differences about our health care policy, for example, John, because we do have a difference on health care policy, but we… (gets interrupted) But when people suggest that I pal around with terrorists, then we’re not talking about issues.
…So, naturally McCain brings up Bill Ayers.
If you were watching on CNN, viewer reaction from the focus group in Ohio was immediately negative. McCain would have done better had he delivered this criticism via rap with Flo Rida: “Oh hot damn / This is my jam / Keep my campaign going til the AM / Y’all don’t understand / Make me think all day / About Bill Ayers, Ay-Ay-Ayers.”
On Their Behaviors: Much was said about Gore’s performance in the debates in 2004–sometimes the way people look leave more of an impression than what they say. During last night’s debate, Obama appeared calm and respectful. Even though he had the chance to blast Palin, he exercised full restraint and just praised her skills as a “politician”. John McCain, on the other hand, could not stop blinking, released a couple of audible sighs (perhaps remorse over missing bingo night), gave some awkwardly smug smiles, and looked almost like he was going to throw in a wink á la his running mate. Some of the split screen shots showed McCain’s evident distaste for what Obama was saying.
In the end? McCain did better than he did before, but we saw the biggest margin of victory for Barack Obama in a sampling of national polls. In CNN’s poll, 58% said Obama won, versus 31% for McCain, the largest margin of victory in the CNN poll for any debate (it was 51% Obama/38% in the first debate, and 54% Obama/30% in the second). Similarly, in the CBS poll of uncommitted viewers, 53% said Obama won, while only 22% said McCain won.
This was McCain’s last stand to either make himself stand out, or goad Obama into doing something stupid. Neither happened. And so in the words of “Lolli Lolli” by Three 6 Mafia: “Like Barack Obama said / Yeah it’s time for a change.”