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Judging the performances

Jason Coleman | Thursday, October 9, 2008

As the debate wrapped up, I was immediately bombarded with about four hundred analysts ready to tell me all about what had just happened. I immediately turned the T.V. off and walked over to my computer to write.

I turned off the T.V. not because I didn’t care, but precisely because I was afraid that I myself would be too influenced in an attempt to make an honest judgment of what had happened. This would be difficult with the “point” scoring and instant replay analysis so common to the major news network follow-ups. As an amateur journalist, my stab at this, of course, will be amateur, but it will be my own honest reaction.

To begin, I think it is necessary to outline what each candidate needed to achieve in the debate.

Since the beginning of the financial crisis, Obama has slowly been pulling away in a number of important battle ground states. Because of this Obama’s goals were not, nor needed to be, quite as lofty, so we will start with him.

Obama only truly needed to hold steady, as he had in the first debate. He had to keep to the issues that he does well on, the economy and healthcare, and show fluency in the issues that he hasn’t done as well on, such as foreign policy.

Conversely, John McCain needed to turn in an excellent performance. The election was (and is) still close enough not to necessitate any sort of Hail Mary-type of tactic, but he would have to hit a few runs to slow Obama’s momentum. McCain also needed to distance himself from Bush, and continue to push the “na’veté” button, as he had done fairly successfully in the first debate. Of course, neither candidate could afford to make any major mistakes.

While I wouldn’t declare either candidate the winner, it seems that Obama achieved his goals a little bit more clearly than did McCain. As soon as the topic turned to the economy, Obama wasted no time in taking the first jab, repeating McCain’s oft-repeated statement on the fundamentals of the economy. This works towards Obama’s advantage.

McCain swung back with an awkward comment on Obama and his “cronies,” in regards to some sort of Fannie/Freddie regulation. It was a bit unclear, but it seemed that the cronies to whom he was referring would have been his fellow senators. If this is the case, this line worked against McCain’s general argument that he is the greater steward of bi-partisanship. If it’s not the case, McCain’s argument came out a bit convoluted.

One of the few weak points for Obama came soon thereafter, however, when the discussion turned toward government spending and taxing. When pressed, Obama made a fairly large claim – that all of his proposed spending would be covered by increased revenue – without offering much in the way of support. Regardless of whether this is true or not, I felt the statement was too large to end the question.

While I wouldn’t consider it a misstep, McCain failed to press this issue at all, and turned instead to earmarks, a favorite topic of his. In both debates so far, this topic has seemed to completely flat line McCain on the CNN viewer reaction graph. I’m just not sure that Americans see this as an issue essential to the state of the economy.

One of the more interesting sequences occurred later, with McCain chastising Obama for being too hawkish on attacking terrorists within Pakistan’s borders. He had invoked Teddy Roosevelt’s famous adage, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” in respect to Obama’s policy.

Obama promptly turned the situation around, calling to mind far more bellicose statements made by McCain on bombing Iran and annihilating North Korea. If there was any sort of serious headshot in the debate, this was it. McCain was unable to respond effectively, nor made a serious attempt to explain what he meant.

In regards to how they carried themselves, I thought Obama did a little better in looking and acting presidential. McCain’s few attempts at humor fell flat (in part because the audience was not permitted to respond) and a few of his comments seemed reminiscent of the kid who sits in the back making wise cracks – “We never heard the size of the fine?” While Obama did not make too many serious attempts at wit, he seemed more presidential and in control. I’m not sure how much this sort of perception plays into voter preference, but I think it is important to note.

Honestly, I don’t think either one blew the lid off this debate. Obama was able to focus the topic back to the economy on a number of questions, which could only help. He also held his own within the town hall format that many believe favored McCain.

McCain also did all right. Although he was unable to really hit any home runs, he did seem to have a clearer plan for the economy and pushed it a little bit more effectively than in the first debate. He also left out a lot of the gimmicks from his campaign (the suspension last week, for instance) that seemed to be holding him down.

My prediction: little movement in the polls. We’ll move on to next Wednesday and domestic policy issues.

Jason Coleman is a junior majoring in management. He can be contacted at coleman.70@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.