08 October 2008

The Debate that Wasn't

I was pretty pleased to see McCain keep it civil last night, and equally pleased that Obama didn't try to bait him or go in for any over-the-top political jujitsu. At the same time, I was disappointed in both candidates at the inability to answer simple questions. I'd hoped direct questions from real people on the stage would keep the candidates on point. It didn't. Also, Brokaw was annoying.

On the whole I'd say of last night night that the country wins big for not being subjected to 90 minutes of absolute filth. A lot of what I heard was rhetorical garbage, from both sides (and this is part of my chagrin that nobody would answer questions; dammit, Obama, the correct answer to "Should health care be a commodity?" is unequivocally "NO"). But last night did not hark back to McCain's frozen countenance nor Obama's overweening caution of the first debate.

McCain was genteel and made inroads on his mortgage buy-up plan and maybe also on taxes and spending cuts. I'm pretty sure though that the senior Republican errs when he suggests not raising taxes on anybody (because the voters he's courting are probably ready to see the richest 1% pay more) and in suggesting a spending freeze. I don't know how it plays in homes nationwide, but when McCain singles out defense budgets and some vague "other" programs to continue to get funds, he leaves out schools and infrastructure, which to me signals bad times coming. Obama was expressive, articulate, and engaged, though he missed an opportunity to explain exactly what it means to tax health benefits as income (McCain's plan). And I don't believe Obama will fine parents who don't insure their kids; I think those parents will simply not be eligible for a tax credit come April 15. Not sure why Obama didn't clarify when McCain pushed. Perhaps I've got it wrong. Is there a plan to actually impose fines?

What we definitely didn't see was the grudge match largely predicted by midafternoon yesterday. Don't know whether to chalk that up to McCain actually listening to his old pal Mike Murphy, who pointed out on tv Monday morning that McCain would be better served by connecting with voters on the issues, his former strength, than by attacking the guy who largely seems the more steady and focused of the two. Alternately, McCain may have decided that it was too risky to invite Obama to play the Keating card on national TV. If a few papers mention it, big deal. But upwards of 40 million viewers and you've got a whole different ball of wax.

It seems pretty definitive that if there was a gaffe it was when McCain referred to Obama as "that one." Not sure what to think, though it felt pejorative, whether McCain meant anything by it or not. I don't assume there's anything racial about it, which is what it felt like Jeff Greenfield went out of his way to avoid saying to Katie Couric after the show. Mostly it seemed the impatient elder, jerking his head in the direction of a mischief-making child. That's just no way to regard an opponent on a national stage, no matter what you may think of him.

I'd like to take a minute to thank John McCain for showing up as a decent guy last night, even if he is still a conniving scumbag politician. I think by being boring he maybe saved a little face. To be sure, he showed off his mortgage buy-up scheme to good effect, though I wonder if conservatives freaked out a little bit when they heard it. As far as undecideds go, I'm not sure he made enough mention of the plan, a result of not wanting to piss off traditional, small government Republicans. After the first mention of it, I turned to Jenna and said "If he's smart, he'll come back to that all night." He didn't, and I'm left to think it was just too calculated a move to resonate with enough voters to move the election in McCain's direction.

I've mostly been trying to figure McCain out last night. Steve Benen pointed up an article yesterday on McCain's sabotage of his own brand, and the candidate may have decided it's not worth destroying what credibility he may have left. Or he may be maneuvering for a graceful endgame to preserve the relationships he'll return to when this is all over. Or he's playing the national message on the high road while still sending out surrogates and buying air time to do the dirty work in less visible markets on the ground. The interesting thing is, the McCain camp is probably right that unless they can destroy Obama's character in the public eye, they aren't likely to catch up. Which is why the attitude on display last night was so . . . surprising. McCain can make a point or two in the polls this week on his debate performance alone, but that's not enough. So what motivates the sudden, issues oriented approach?

I'll wait to see how the week plays out to try and answer that question, to see if the debate falls into a greater, McCain campaign context. It really seems like if McCain still wanted to go nuclear, last night was the night to do it for two reasons. The first is that he simply has to check Obama's momentum. The second is that if the attack strategy backfired, McCain would have one more debate before election day to show up as the kindly and engaged persona we saw last night. Not enough, to be sure, to win an election, but saved for the third debate that kind of performance would soften the rancor surrounding McCain's campaign going into November 4. If he's still thinking about playing to the savage negatives, but saving it for the last debate, I think it would be a terrific mistake. He'd only leave undecided voters with a sour taste in their mouths three weeks before the election.

Obama's performance meanwhile reinforced his presidential appeal. He appeared completely at ease in "McCain's format," and never lost the presence that has attracted so many supporters. I complained after the first debate that Obama came off as just a politician. Last night he fared slightly better. And he expressed his world view quite well--that we should sit down not just with our friends but with our enemies, and not be afraid to tell them where we stand--which spells bad news for the McCain campaign. Foreign policy is supposed to be McCain's strong suit, but he just can't connect on promises that he knows how to get Bin Laden.

As a viewer last night, I have to say that I came away refreshingly bored. And that, in an increasingly unpredictable and distasteful campaign cycle, strikes me as a blessing.