I thought Barack Obama lost the debate. Fortunately just on points. It wasn’t a knock out.
First the obvious. McCain may be right about a few things. But please, Senator Obama, don’t keep telling the American people that. This is a problem for not only Obama but of progressives in general. Liberals are by definition willing to listen to others and respect their views. They try so hard to be nice that they can’t pull the knife. More important, once they draw the knife, they can’t put it in the gut. Every time Democrats tells Americans that we should honor McCain for his service and agree that he is right, they simply reinforce the message that he is honorable and right. Let him make the argument. By now, Obama has inoculated himself against attacks that he dishonors McCain’s inability to fly a plane. Let’s have a moratorium on praising John McCain. Besides, he certainly hasn’t reciprocated.
GOP message discipline is much stronger: “Obama doesn’t understand,” said at least eight times. Consequently, Obama spent his time trying to convince people that he does understand. That he in fact succeeded in that is some consolation, but it took time away from attacking McCain and from setting out a vision and a frame for this election.
Both candidates dodged questions they should have answered head on. It isn’t necessary to go through a long list of things that might have to be curtailed due to the costly bailout.
But they could have mentioned one item to show they aren’t afraid of tough questions. “Due to this reckless eight years that John McCain has been complicit in destroying the American economy and the $700 billion of taxpayer dollars we now must spend to prevent an economic collapse, I would probably have to delay some of the infrastructure projects I’ve proposed.”
And end it there. People would remember not what you would delay, but the indictment of McCain’s economic philosophy. More important, it bolsters the image of responsibility and candor.
Another point Obama needs to begin to plant in anticipation of victory and a credible infrastructure program is to challenge business. “The American people are going to be making a lot of sacrifices due to the irresponsibility of many of the titans of business. Once we start bidding on infrastructure projects, I’m expecting those in the business of building those roads and bridges and electrical grids to give the American people an honest and fair bid, something we’ve not gotten from too many contractors, especially defense contractors.”
Obama also missed many opportunities to remind voters of McCain’s deregulation philosophy. He should have repeated that as often as McCain said Sen. Obama doesn’t understand. If he’d been thinking quickly, Obama should have adapted the line himself, “Sen. McCain doesn’t understand how much his deregulation philosophy has destroyed our economy and the middle class; but then he has admitted he doesn’t understand a lot about economics.”
Obama made the point only once when he reminded viewers that the middle class was hurting before the financial crisis and that they have been in crisis at the end of every month. In fact, a communication point Obama should repeat is how no one got exercised about a financial crisis until Wall St. was hurting, while the middle class has been hurting for 12 months.
It was a mistake that Obama didn’t engage McCain immediately. I’m not sure why he was at first reluctant to talk directly to McCain, who of course, never did so. He should have looked at McCain at the very first attack. By repeatedly looking at him and indeed asking for McCain response, he might have forced McCain to lose his temper. It would also made Obama look strong, a fighter. In fact, it would have been a good idea for Obama to ask him a question and demand that he look at him with the answer. McCain was obviously told not to engage him, and he would have probably followed the orders right off the cliff.
When Obama talked about McCain’s tax cuts, he needed to use more numbers to make the case stark. For example (I’m making up the numbers): “My tax plan would reduce taxes for everyone making less than $250,000. My opponent’s tax plan gives the top 5% 95% of the tax cuts. Under my plan people making less that $50,000 would get at $2,000 tax cut. Under my opponent’s plan, they would get $50. Stay away from the macro numbers and focus on specific price points that make your case.
The pork barrel argument is a winner for McCain. Obama should have pointed out how much pork Palin has gotten. “John, you and your running mate say one thing and do another. But I tell you what, Sen. McCain, I’ll cut the $18 million in pork if you’ll cut the $1 trillion dollars on the Iraq War.”
And he needed to show that he was mad about it and that the middle class is livid about it. Obama should have said that for eight years of the Bush Administration John McCain had a chance to call for spending cuts and didn’t, voting with Bush 90% of the time. “You’ve come to spending cuts just as this campaign started.”
Obama was much better in challenging McCain over his judgement going into Iraq. Every time McCain talked about “winning the war,” Obama should have responded, “It cost 4,000 American lives, 30,000 wounded and nearly a trillion dollars just so McCain can say he won a war we didn’t need to start.”
A tactic Republicans use in debates, including the talk show food fights, is to dominate the time. I was surprised that Lehrer said at one point the time each spoke was even. Perhaps, but did you notice that McCain usually got the last word? When I judge a news story, either on TV, radio or in the paper, I look first at the headline, next the lede and then the closing paragraph. What’s in the middle doesn’t matter as much. Why? Most people just see the headline. Own it. Those who just want the high level message read the headline and the lede and a paragraph or two. And those who want it all, remember the headline, the lede and the close as it’s the last impression that is critical. And McCain always got the last word. Obama can’t continue to let that happen.
Obama needs to attack McCain from a higher plane. By that I mean a response to McCain’s “spending freeze” idea is to say, “John, for 40 years you Republicans always talk about spending cuts without saying what you’ll cut. Why? The American people are beginning to understand that when you guys cut, you cut middle class help, you cut incomes for the middle class, you cut support for those who’ve work hard all their lives and played by the rules, while you keep giving no bid contracts to defense contractors and keep giving huge tax cuts to the oil industry and those who make millions on Wall St. while destroying the middle class’ next egg. After 8 years of spending cuts, we all know who gets mortally wounded.
“You can’t regurgitate old ideas of, quote, spending cuts except for military and veterans. It’s simplistic thinking. First, building a strong military doesn’t mean we have to give no-bid contracts for every program or weapon the military wants.
“Second, there are a lot of hard working people who also have been casualties. Casualties of another rigid, old idea you have been hiding behind ever since you came to Washington: deregulation. We know what that means. It means big business, especially Wall St., gets to do whatever they want until they screw up. Then it’s heads they win, tails, the middle class not only has to bail them out to the tune of $2500 for every man, woman and child, but then programs that help the middle class become, quote, spending cuts.
“It’s time we had a little more honest discussion about what you’ll cut.”
(It’s no accident I use “old ideas.” )
Then he needs an anecdote. Certainly, he has been told a story that everyone will know at least someone with a similar story. Sometimes, I sense that progressives get a little squeamish when they get too personal. They feel they’re manipulating public opinion in a maudlin way. Get over it. It works. Joe Biden knows.
While the instant polls gave Obama an advantage, I’m not so sanguine. He showed a knowledge of foreign affairs. I think he helped assure some folks he could be less risky that they first thought. But Barack Obama is smart enough to win this going away. But he’ll need to trust his gut when he speaks extemporaneously, rather than appear to parse every statement, afraid to make a misstep.
And please, Sen. Obama, get mad. Those who will see an angry black man aren’t ever going to vote for you anyway.