First Debate: McCain Battles as Palin Disaster Looms

Did something last night I’ve never done before. I got a pen and paper and actually tried to score the debate as it went along. I think there were 9 or 10 actual questions, though the “crosstalk” Lehrer kept encouraging sometimes spawned new mini-questions. So let’s call it 10.

In my reading, this debate was extremely close; in fact, I’d call five of the questions ties where both men acquited themselves well. Of the remaining five, I’d call two for Obama and three for McCain, giving McCain a very narrow “win” for the night. I was surprised to see that result, because I thought McCain’s first answer, to the question about the financial bailout/recovery efforts, was awful, almost incoherent, while the O Man crisply ticked off a fast to-do list.  I could see a terrible night for the Macster about to unfold. But he seemed to get himself under better control as the evening went on.

A few impressions and notes:

 *Can’t believe Lehrer didn’t start off by asking McCain just what he thought he accomplished by “suspending” his campaign and charging off to Washington.  I would have bet $50 he’d open with that one. Could have followed by asking McC whether he was disappointed that O wouldn’t go along with postponing the debate.

*Odd  that neither man flatly declared that Iran must be prevented from getting nuclear weapons. I know McCain has said it before, and I think Obama has said no option is off the table, but I didn’t hear that kind of clarity last night. Here, via the Dallas Morning News, is one more reason these folks don’t need nukes:

While Religions for Peace USA, a coalition of religious liberals, welcomed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to dinner and “dialogue” this week in New York, the Iranian parliament was putting the final touches on a bill that would impose the death penalty on any Muslim who leaves his religion. If it becomes law, the measure would put a number of Iranian religious minorities, who already face persecution in the Islamic republic, in danger of execution. Worse still, the Iranian bill grants the theocratic government the right to carry out death sentences on Islamic apostates anywhere in the world.

*I was also surprised that Obama waited so late–until his final couple of sentences–to promise to restore America’s Bush-bashed reputation.  Every poll I see shows that large majorities want to be loved again by the world, so he should have thumped that drum a few more times.

*McCain, for his part, should have done even more to separate himself from the Bushkin. He did have a strong moment when he listed his differences with GB–on climate change, torture, and more– but he should have repeated the list at least twice more, because the “Bush’s Third Term” theme is working against him. And did he ever use the “Country First” line that he’s been pushing since the convention?

*It was black-humor time when neither candidate, despite repeated probing by Lehrer, would admit to any change whatsoever in his spending plans as a result of the $700-billion bailout. Uh, hello, hasn’t the fiscal picture changed just a tad in the last week or so?

  *Not sure this matters much now, but I blinked when Obama charged that McCain said we’d be “greeted as liberators” if we invaded Iraq. Hmm.  Wasn’t that Cheney’s infamous line? So, diligent li’l fact gatherer that I am, I ran some Googles this morning and so far haven’t found a direct “liberators” prediction from McCain.  I did find this from Media Matters:

On the March 12, 2003 edition of MSNBC’s Hardball, host Chris Matthews asked McCain: “Do you believe that the people of Iraq or at least a large number of them will treat us as liberators?”  McCain answered: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Several days after the invasion, Matthews asked McCain a similar question, to which he answered: “There’s no doubt in my mind that we will prevail and there’s no doubt in my mind that, once these people are gone, that we will be welcomed as liberators.”

Not to split hairs, but there is a bit more nuance there than Obama implied. So much of this slips down the Memory Hole, but I seem to recall that our forces were in fact greeted happily by many Iraqis. Looking around, I found this from a former U. S. soldier who served in Iraq:

  We were greeted as liberators. Unlike the gathered savants on this blog, I was there, in what was then termed “Saddam City,” and enjoyed the outpouring of jubilation. If you don’t understand how the vast majority of Shi’i Iraqis and Sunni Kurds saw US troops in the first weeks of the invasion, then perhaps you have the skewed view of history. In Tikrit, we weren’t greeted as “liberators.” But elsewhere I went, we were. . . .

Posted by: Soldiernolongeriniraq | July 30, 2008 at 02:45 PM

Again, not sure how much ice this cuts one way or the other,  given that the war was so badly botched after the first few euphoric weeks. And that recalls what may have been Obama’s best line of the night, about McCain pretending that the war started in 2007 rather than 2003.

*Last point: With his final sally about Obama and the Surge, McCain tried and botched a diabolically smart move that a better debater might have pulled off. You may have missed it through his fumbles, but McCain was trying to say that Obama was in his own way as inflexible and dogmatic as the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld Axis of Error. Just as Bush et al couldn’t concoct Plan B or C after the war went bad, he was trying to say, Obama cannot broaden his thinking about the war beyond his early fixed position. Would have made a nice sound bite if McCain had made it work.

To sum up, McCain hit some solid doubles, as did Obama, but no long home runs, and because his Washington escapade didn’t help him shed the Herbert Hoover image I discussed the other day, I think he’s still slip-sliding away. Most importantly, he didn’t do enough to offset the looming Palin Disaster that could occur in Thursday’s Veep Debate.

I was fairly noncommital about Palin the first few weeks;  having no fixed prejudice against “her type,” I decided to wait a while and try to judge her on her own merits rather than rely on the kind of venomous, broad-brush denunciations that would bring cries of outrage if used against Blacks, gays, or handicapped people.

But now that I’ve seen her in action a few times. . . Jeez. This could be bad. Will she even be able to fill her two minutes with answers? Has she gone back and read McCain’s clips to find out why he’s considered a maverick reformer? Will she really try to brazen out the “Bridge to Nowhere” thing one more time? This could make Biden look dignified and perspicacious. This could make Dan Quayle look Churchillian.  Even with the usually gentle Gwen Iffel moderating, this  could be 90 minutes of pulling the wings off butterflies.

Unless Palin has some cards she hasn’t played yet in these early interviews, she–and the guy who picked her–could come off looking stupid. Syndcol Kathleen Parker may be right in calling for her immediate withdrawal from the ticket,  though even that might not bail out rescue the sinking McCain.  


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