Sep 28 2008

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Points for Experience in the Debate

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On points alone, John McCain won the debate on Friday night, hands down.

After a tentative start, McCain showed himself to be an aggressive and confident debater, in charge of his facts, and verbally capable of raising doubts about his challenger’s qualifications for office.

During the 90 minute contest, Obama was repeatedly unconvincing on his opposition to the Surge in Iraq and his willingness to meet with rogue leaders without pre-condition.

According to one accounting, Obama, in rebuttal to McCain, said that his opponent was “absolutely right” on six occasions, which begs the question how McCain’s overall foreign policy views can be so catastrophically wrong according to the Democrats if Obama agrees with him so often.

The real question though is, did it matter?

The debate Friday night capped an extraordinary week in American history.

As the financial crisis exceeded the fixes available through the Treasury and Federal Reserve, Congress – more at home naming post offices and playing partisan gotcha — became the unlikely vehicle of last resort to restore financial confidence and prevent further economic calamity on Main Street.

At the same time, voters gained a unique insight into the two presidential candidates, both ostensibly members of the body considering the economic recovery package.

Obama was understated and detached. He said little about the package being developed and whether he would support it.  He continued his campaign stating that if Senate leadership needed him, they could call him.

McCain opted for the dramatic; a campaign suspension, and a request that Obama join him in Washington, leading the bailout negotiations in a bipartisan manner, and putting off the debates until the crisis had been resolved. It was a typical McCain move and fit well with his “experienced change” meme of doing and not just talking.

But McCain’s announcement came after he suffered from several days of verbal contradictions on economic policy that were showing up in negative polling numbers. However genuine McCain’s motives, the reaction was skeptical.

Obama and Congressional Democrats hilariously decried the introduction of presidential politics into the “delicate” negotiations on a package, as if politics was the last thing on the minds of negotiators.

For their part, the media Commentariat saw only erratic impulsiveness in McCain’s actions, which were contrasted most unfavorably with Obama’s studied calm amid crisis.

Further, insisting on postponement of the debates had not gone down well with the American public. Despite McCain’s insistence all year that Obama join him in town hall meetings, the suspension request suddenly made McCain look timid and uncertain.

So walking into Oxford, Mississippi on Friday night, McCain was in worse shape than his campaign could have imagined at the beginning of the week.

His act of statesmanship had been caricatured as  grandstanding at best or a cynical ploy at worst. His preconditions for a debate – that the bailout agreement be complete – fell away after a bipartisan meeting chaired by the President fell into partisan acrimony, with Democrats blaming McCain for the setback. The public, while recognizing the crisis, did not see a debate as partisan or less important than the recovery package negotiations. McCain appeared fumbling and diminished

But despite having won the debate, “victory” depends on what you are trying to achieve.

To change the new dynamic that flows in Obama’s favor, the McCain campaign needed more than their candidate to shine. They needed Obama to make a mistake, and this he didn’t do. Obama’s mark for success in Oxford was the “Reagan test”.  He did not have to win, he simply needed to come across as informed, mature and credible, and he clearly met this mark.

On stage, Obama looked like a plausible president.

Post debate polls support this with a majority believing that Obama “won” the debate. That should further boost Obama polling through the middle of the week.

But what did the debate mean in the larger context of the campaign?

Events are still proving decisive.

Obama lost support in July and August with his world tour and vacation, but also because the invasion of Georgia re-focused voter attention on foreign policy.  It may have been Obama at his most impulsive in choosing Joe Biden amid doubts about his credibility on national security issues.

But as the Wall Street meltdown has dominated the news, threatening the economy and driving up the cost to angry and frustrated taxpayers, it is Obama, as the fresh face who benefits. Polls at both the national and state level have moved in his direction dramatically in the past several days as a result.

But a news cycle is now a lifetime in politics.

What of life after Congress passes the recovery package? Will voters focus on the cost of the package, or the renewed confidence of Wall Street that it will cause, calming fears of a broad economic meltdown?  Who will benefit from the bipartisanship that created the package, the candidate who stayed away from Washington or the man who came to help?

After Debate #1 Obama is credible and McCain is capable. Still, unpredictable events are in the driver’s seat.

That continues to make this a pick ‘em election, despite what the polls may say.

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