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He Said, He Said: Presidential Debate Edition

By Marcus Gilmer in News on Oct 16, 2008 3:30PM

By now, you've watched the debate, read the recaps all over the interwebs, and even checked out this "Joe The Plumber" guy. As for us, our political writer, Kevin Robinson, is traveling right now so I caught up with him via IM to get his thoughts on last night's third Presidential debate. While it was at times lively, and we thought moderator Bob Schieffer did a good job, it ended up being much of the same for anyone who has watched previous debates and followed the campaigns. Still, there was plenty to talk about.

If you haven't seen the debate yet or just want to relive it in all its glory, check out below.

Marcus: First impression?

Kevin: McCain lost, and lost bad.

Marcus: Really? Some pundits (CNN and NBC) think he won early, but lost as the night went on.

Kevin: Well, they keep Roland Martin and Lou Dobbs on the payroll. What do they know?

Marcus: Fair enough.

Kevin: I thought McCain was doing really well at the beginning, but he went off the rails early and you know, I think Obama let him do it. That moment when he chuckled [after McCain mentioned Acorn] you'd think he was chuckling at what McCain said. But I think Obama was laughing because he had him.

Marcus: That's when it felt like the debate turned. When McCain went from being "feisty" to being "bitter and angry."

Kevin: And Obama led him down that road. McCain said "my campaign is about the economy," that was, I thought, when the debate turned.

Marcus: It seemed, at first, like Obama was trying to side-step the negative campaign issue.

Kevin: I think that Oama is very good at being high-road. That's his signature, you know? Not red states or blue states, but the United States. So it's in his advantage to act that way.

Marcus: But McCain's feistiness seemed to play well early. His line about not being George Bush was pretty good.

Kevin: But you know, Obama led McCain down that path, that, "attack me on culture war issues, while I sound competent on the economy." Well, at first, I was thinking that McCain was going to take a deep breath, relax, and then talk about his economic recovery plan because he hit Obama hard on the "going down the socialism road" early on. That's something that I think resonates with people

Marcus: So will McCain's visible, palatable anger over-shadow his good performance on the economy early, when he was hammering Obama on spending?

Kevin: Definitely. The thing about McCain is that he despises Obama so much, and doesn't really believe that he should even be running for president, let along debating him. And he can’t even stand that anyone would take him seriously, that when Obama starts making sense and winning over voters, it just enrages McCain

Marcus: Those are pretty audacious assumptions.

Kevin: I think it's true. His people told him not to look at Obama during the first debate so that he wouldn't lose his temper. The thing is, those so-called swing voters, the ones that will probably decide the election, they aren't voting on issues. People that have issues made up their minds long ago.

Marcus: Well, will McCain's emotions tonight swing voters for him or against? On the one hand, seeing someone express their passion can be attractive. But at the same time, with people questioning his Palin choice, it comes off as maybe he's an impulse guy.

Kevin: The people that are undecided at this point, they don't have issues. Anyone that has issues made up their mind long ago.

Marcus: Who makes up the undecided voters then?

Kevin: The swing voters that will most likely decide this race, they want to look at the candidate and decide for themselves who's really presidential. And McCain's temper isn't in his favor this year. I think there are those kind of undecideds in almost every state but in states that are, historically, contested states, like Ohio or Colorado, which is changing between Western libertarian types and urban immigrant worker types those so-called swing voters make a difference. And when McCain seems tense, desperate and angry and Obama is cool and steady, well, that's presidential

Marcus: I guess right now, while it might ultimately backfire, I'm not sure if MCain lost the debate based on his behavior. I think McCain came off strongest on the economy. And I wonder if people kind of tuned-out after that. I think much of Middle America will buy into the Joe the Plumber shtick like they did Joe Six-Pack

Kevin: I think that he was strong on the economy at first, too. Had he stuck to those points, and acted like he had confidence in his plan, he could have held me through the debate. But the more McCain talks, the more you get the sense that he's talking about retail change. As though the status quo were sailing along nicely, and we just need to make some tweaks to get the engine purring again. Obama talks in broad terms, talks about wholesale change, and while that's his theme, and what he's running, you get a much broader sense of a coherent plan for the economy going forward. I really felt like, as the debate wore on, McCain was just throwing out whatever he could think of to see what might work.

Marcus: It almost felt like the middle portion where things got personal, that was the climax and everything after that was kind of a let-down.

Kevin: Most definitely.

Marcus: I almost tuned out after that. Like they finally hit the stride we were hoping for but then all the air went out when they changed subjects

Kevin: I felt like the debate was over when Ayers came up. I couldn't understand why McCain even brought that up. When Schieffer asked him about those negative attacks, McCain missed a great opportunity. I mean, he looked genuinely hurt about the John Lewis comment and I actually felt sorry for him. I sympathized with him.

Marcus: But...?

Kevin: He could have reached out to Obama, apologized and asked that they both tone it down and talk about the issues. It goes to his rep as a maverick and the kind of guy that works with both parties. And that bolsters his "do we want one party in charge?" argument. Admittedly, it's risky hitting Obama on the race issue, but thus far, it's been Obama that's suffered when race has come up. Instead, though, he let Obama lead him down the Ayers path. Nobody buys the palling around with terrorist stuff. Palin self-destructs on that, looks like a caricature of herself.

Marcus: Is playing the Ayers card McCain's “Jump The Shark” moment? I mean, we saw Clinton do it and it didn't work then. Why go back to that? It feels like that last Hail Mary play at the end of a ballgame even though I don't think the Electoral College vote is nearly as slanted towards Obama yet as people indicate.

Kevin: I think McCain jumped the shark when he suspended his campaign during the meltdown. I think it will still be a close race. Very close. But, like I said earlier, I just don't see those fluky undecideds digging McCain's anger and tension for four years in the White House.

Marcus: So you definitely think the main thing people will take away from this debate is McCain as "angry" while his campaign and the GOP will surely spin it as "passionate" and "feisty."

Kevin: I think that the take away from this debate is part and parcel of a larger narrative across the last two months of the this race: McCain as desperate, angry, all over the page.

Marcus: Interesting…

Kevin: His reputation, four, eight years ago was pretty respectable. Suddenly, though, he's become someone sort of repulsive. He's associating with Bush operatives, right-wing weirdoes.

Marcus: He sold his soul to the GOP?

Kevin: I think he sold out to the far right, yes. And his timing was wrong. There is no permanent Republican majority.

Marcus: So the media perception (NBC, CBS, CNN) is that Obama "won" this debate. Does this hold over to the public?

Kevin: For a group of the population, yes. They only sort of watched the debate, or didn't watch at all. They know about the debate from the national narrative that's told on the news, and more so, in the popular culture. I mean, there's a reason that people say Palin can see Russia from her house. That was on SNL, not the actual news. If the sense, among those that watched the debates, is that Obama won and if that's reinforced in the news, then that becomes what people remember, right?

Marcus: Though, to be fair, Palin did say that Alaska's proximity to Russia was a reason why she has foreign experience.

Kevin: Sure, and she's actually right. She just isn't polished enough. The right answer for her would have been, "Look, Katie, we live in a special place in Alaska. We're near Russia, we share a huge border with Canada. We know foreigners; we interact with them all the time. And, as governor of an energy-rich state in that position, I know what it takes to work with other countries, other peoples." Whew, that was a long sentence.

Marcus: Okay, we've focused on McCain's anger here. What about Obama's demeanor? The man seems to have ice water in his veins. He never broke while McCain seemed to get very near his edge. Obama smiled and addressed the camera directly

Kevin: Obama is a very talented politician. That's why it's so fun to watch him speak, if you're a Democrat. He's smart, calm, and deliberate. And he's calculating. He came across as presidential in every debate.

Marcus: More so in this one than the others. It was such a stark contrast to McCain's visible anger.

Kevin: It seemed like Obama was more relaxed in each debate, and McCain was more on edge in each successive debate. But it's easy to be calm and collected when you feel like you're winning.

Marcus: Sure, he's more confident now that he's over 50% in most polls.

Kevin: The thing about Obama, I think, is that he's been beaten before. It's almost as though he's so used to losing, he's just like "Fuck it, we're doing our thing, and it'll work or it won't.”

Marcus: You think he's that at ease?

Kevin: I think that he's got a lot more experience running for office than people realize
and besides, this presidential race has been going on for two years. And the Democratic race was a lot more competitive than the Republican race was.

Marcus: So this is an instance when the longer Democratic primary season helped Obama?

Kevin: I think that you saw Obama's experience in this debate on issues like health care, which Clinton beat him up pretty badly on. The other thing that Obama does really well is stick to multi-point plans. "First, I'll do this, Second, we have to do that, Then, we've got to..." and so on. It really clarifies his thoughts, and leaves people with a sense of what he would do if he were president. It's a pretty classic debate tactic, but against someone who's just throwing stuff out there, it's supremely effective.

Marcus: I still keep going back to the beginning. McCain really hammered Obama on the spending and taxes. And I just can't shake that feeling that McCain really hit on something there, regardless of what the pundits think of who won.

Kevin: I agree. I don't like his mortgage bailout plan, and I think it's a retail solution to some wholesale problems, but it's something that speaks to people. Had he continued to hit Obama on taxes and government controlled programs, he could have made more headway. I mean, who raises taxes when the economy is in the toilet?

Marcus: Of course.

Kevin: Well, I say that only as an argument. I understand Obama's position, and agree more with it than McCain's. But he missed such a key argument. Remember when he looked at the camera, at the end of the debate, and said, "Oh, I get it. They [vouchers] work, but there aren't enough to go around, so let's not do it?" Why didn't he look at the camera and say, "Who the hell raises taxes when unemployment is near 6% and the Dow is going down the drain? Are you fucking crazy?"

Marcus: Well, he certainly was full of piss and vinegar

Kevin: He just channeled it all wrong.