(Cindy McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham at the 2nd presidential debate a couple weeks ago, via Reuters.)
(Cindy McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham at the 2nd presidential debate a couple weeks ago, via Reuters.)
Last time, McCain got through one answer where he followed his coaching, then turned back into John McCain.
Tonight, he got through almost 30 minutes where he followed his coaching, then turned back into John McCain.
All Obama did… or had to do, for that matter… was stay calm and wait for him to self-destruct.
Via TPM Election Central, the Obama campaign cuts to the chase about tonight’s debate:
On the big issues, this debate is one last chance for John McCain to do what he has failed to do throughout this entire campaign: explain to the American people how his economic policies would be any different at all than the failed Bush agenda he has supported every step of the way. It’s his last chance to somehow convince the American people that his erratic response to this economic crisis doesn’t disqualify him from being President.
. . . the real question is not how many attacks McCain can land in the debate, but whether he can finally communicate a vision to turn this economy around.
Not only that, the vision he unveils has to be so convincing that a significant chunk of people who are currently planning to vote for Obama step back and say, “Whoa! What were we thinking?!”
After all, Obama built his lead during the recent financial meltdown by consistently presenting (in the debates and his omnipresent ads) the kind of policies and temperament that people think are best suited to getting us out of the ditch. McCain needs not only to show that he can play in the same league, but to convince people somehow that what we saw from Obama over the past month was some kind of illusion.
It’s McCain’s bad luck that after building up a mythology about his awesome leadership potential and supposed ability to take charge in a crisis, an actual crisis and test of leadership erupted in the middle of the campaign, and he failed.
Update 1: Then again, I could be wrong — McCain’s highly focused debate preparation may carry him through.
Update 2: More seriously, if it weren’t probably too late (and beyond McCain’s ability to pull off performance-wise), this is reasonably good advice on how to re-establish his brand from one of the guys who helped him build it.
Fast work from Xerotopia.
(Sarah Palin during last night’s televised vice presidential debate, via the Associated Press.)
The punditocracy has decided that Obama “did what he had to do”, and that the debate was “a slight advantage for Obama”. “A draw is a win” for Obama, they tell us, as he has demonstrated that he knows where Afghanistan is and the difference between a Sunni and a Shia. From my perspective, however, the debate, like the entire Obama campaign, is a sad display of one missed opportunity after another. It illustrates again that Democrats and their advisors lack the will, confidence, and strength to snatch the prize. It reminds me of the pathetic Kerry campaign, a sad chronicle of weak advertising, lost momentum, and the inability to make a clear and compelling case. Like that heartbreaking exercise in self-inflicted doom, the Obama campaign, through its inability or unwillingness to make the obvious case against a grievously weak candidate, is coasting towards an appointment with defeat. The soaring and inspiring message that Obama delivered during the primary, and used to dispatch his rivals and carve himself a unique niche in American politics, has devolved to a reactive, niggling, small-bore, play-it-safe muddle that’s lacking any strategic message and is allowing itself to be stomped by a vain and erratic geriatric candidate, a moose-in-the-headlights redneck in pumps, and a cabal of corrupt and destructive corporate shills. By accepting every frame that the Republicans present, and falling into every trap they set, Obama and his key advisor David Axelrod are well on the road to joining Kerry and his advisor Bob Shrum as another disappointed backbencher and a hired CNN spinmeister, rather than as the redemptive president and the architect of a new Democratic ascendancy they could have been. “Why is Obama only a few points ahead in this Democratic year?”, the pundits ask. The answer is obvious.
Let’s start with the debate. Apart from the obvious error of repeatedly deferring to “John” by telling the audience how right he is, Obama failed again and again to take the opportunities McCain presented on a platter. How could he have allowed McCain’s challenge on his definition of middle class to pass without reminding the viewers of McCain’s $5 million definition of middle class? How could he not challenge McCain’s ridiculous plan for a $5000 handout in lieu of meaningful health care reform? No mention of Phil Gramm and the shameful and astonishing “mental recession” and “whining Americans” remarks. No clear narrative connecting the deregulatory obsession of the Republicans with the financial meltdown. Obama allowed himself repeatedly to be drawn into miniscule arguments about the number of dollars in earmarks or the exact words Admiral Mullen might have said, rather than reminding the viewers that, in every arena, from the economy to Al Queda to our international standing to civil liberties, we’ve been diminished and debased. What’s wrong with the simple and clear “Are you better off…” argument that worked so well for Reagan, rather than the petty bickering over what Kissinger may or may not have said in some obscure forum?
The one moment that typifies for me Obama’s litany of missed opportunity was the incredible moment when McCain accused him of not knowing the difference between a tactic and a strategy. This was the softball that every candidate dreams of. This was the moment for Obama to put McCain away, and it was lost. How different might the debate have looked if Obama had replied:
“Sen. McCain claims to understand the difference between tactics and strategy. Was it his strategic intent to mislead the American public when he claimed to know where the WMDs were? Was it his strategic intent to allow Bin Laden and his lieutenants to slink out of Afghanistan and set up a new safe haven in Pakistan? Was it his strategic intent to remove Iran’s mortal enemy and embolden them to pursue nuclear arms and use Hizbollah to attack Israel and destabilize our democratic allies in Lebanon? Was it his strategy to weaken our country in the eyes of our allies and enemies, to embolden Russia, to create looting, ethnic cleansing, and sectarian violence that nearly tore Iraq apart? Was it his strategy to drive the cost of oil to record levels that are threatening our economy and sending our dollars to our enemies? Was it his strategy to spend our blood and treasure so injudiciously in Iraq that we are now indebted to China for our financial stability? In fact, It’s Senator McCain who doesn’t understand the difference between tactics and strategy, and the strategy of his president, his party and himself has made our country more vulnerable than it’s been in decades.”
It’s not just the debates. Is the ridiculous “McCain can’t email” ad really the best Axelrod can do, when he’s got Palin to work with? Where are the ads reminding voters about McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five, and that scandal’s obvious connection, through unbridled deregulation and lobbyist influence, to the current crisis? Where are the ads showing clips of McCain’s every wrong-headed pronouncement over the last six years regarding Afghanistan and Iraq? (I know Obama referred to them in the debate, but is it possible Axelrod doesn’t understand that voters need to see them, not just hear claim and counterclaim?) Where is the ad showing McCain’s campaign org chart, and highlighting every lobbyist and his connections to the fiscal crisis? Where are the quotes from Sen. Grassley and other Republican colleagues about McCain’s erratic temperament? How can Obama and Axelrod abide McCain’s threadbare political tricks, from the nomination of Palin to the “bailout savior” routine, without challenging his “Country First” baloney? Has there been an Obama video referencing Palin’s bizarre views on abortion? Or refuting her claims on the Bridge to Nowhere? Does Axelrod really believe that anyone still hears the “90% with George Bush” claim anymore? Why not actually illustrate how specific votes that McCain took that led directly to our current crisis? Where are the ads about McCain’s opposition to Martin Luther King day, or his no-vote on Child Health Insurance, Bridge Repair Funding, implementing the 9/11 commission findings, or his vote for the Debt Increase legislation that increased our national debt to $9 Trillion?
And, of course, where is the transcendent rhetoric that propelled Obama to this point in the race for the presidency? Are Democrats doomed to repeat the Kerry campaign’s safety-first, no-offense offense from campaign to campaign, like a punchy fighter whose only remaining tactic is clinching his opponent while waiting for the knockout? And are progressives doomed to watch again and again as the shabbiest, meanest, and least qualified candidates, put up by the morally and intellectually bankrupt know-nothings of the Republican party, take the prize again because they have the stomach to fight with conviction? As Truman said exactly 60 years ago at the National Plowing Match in Dexter, Iowa,
I wonder how many times you have to be hit on the head before you find out who’s hitting you? It’s about time that the people of America realized what the Republicans have been doing to them.
It’s about time Democrats took Harry’s advice and recognized this fight for what it is, a battle for the survival of our democracy.
My prediction of Barack Obama explicitly pushing the steady versus unsteady theme in last night’s debate didn’t pan out, but this part of my post still rings true:
… in the past, nationally televised debates (most notably for Ronald Reagan in 1980) have been a forum where a candidate seen as risky or inexperienced could cross the “credibility threshold” by coming across as composed and knowledgeable enough to be a plausible President. Already ahead in most polls, Obama could close the proverbial deal tonight with many wavering voters with a calm, confident presentation.
When the details of this encounter fade, as they soon will, I think the debate as a whole will be seen as of a piece with Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, Reagan-Carter in 1980, and Clinton-Bush in 1992.
In each of those cases, a fresh, new candidate (although chronologically older in Reagan’s case) had been gathering momentum at a time of general dissatisfaction with the “four more years” option of sticking with the incumbent party. The question was whether the challenger could stand as an equal with the more experienced, tested, and familiar figure. In each of those cases, the challenger passed the test — not necessarily by “winning” the debate, either on logical points or in immediate audience or polling reactions, but by subtly reassuring doubters on the basic issue of whether he was a plausible occupant of the White House and commander in chief.
That was Obama’s goal — not kicking McCain’s ass (as many liberal diehards like myself wanted) but presenting himself as composed and knowledgeable to all those low-information voters who haven’t been following the campaign.
(From last night’s presidential debate, via the Associated Press.)
You may have already seen this quote today, where Republican campaign consultant Craig Shirley assessed the effect of John McCain’s re-reversed stance on attending tonight’s presidential debate (via the Huffington Post‘s Sam Stein):
In the end, he blinked and Obama did not. The ‘steady hand in a storm’ argument looks now to more favor Obama, not McCain.
The Obama campaign couldn’t have framed things any better, you might think to yourself, and you’d be right — Obama spokesman Bill Burton used the same metaphor yesterday (via Ben Smith at Politico):
Throughout the course of this crisis, Sen. Obama has shown voters that he would be a steady hand at the wheel were he to be elected president at a time of crisis, and I don’t know that voters would have gotten the same impression having seen John McCain over the course of this same week.
Burton’s comments today on behalf of Obama have continued to push this steady-vs.-unsteady theme, and you can bet that Barack himself will find a way to work it into his debate arguments tonight.
Ironically, one of the reasons McCain had for wanting to avoid the debate is that being seen as the “safer,” more experienced candidate is traditionally a plus in presidential elections — and in the past, nationally televised debates (most notably for Ronald Reagan in 1980) have been a forum where a candidate seen as risky or inexperienced could cross the “credibility threshold” by coming across as composed and knowledgeable enough to be a plausible President. Already ahead in most polls, Obama could close the proverbial deal tonight with many wavering voters with a calm, confident presentation.
That danger for McCain is now magnified by the clumsy impulsiveness he’s demonstrated the past few days. Just by keeping his cool, Obama can portray himself as not only the outsider who will bring change to Washington, but as the safer, steadier leader — a rare combination that will be hard to defeat.
McCain’s insistence on seeing the election (and world events) as mere vehicles for his all-consuming personal drama has been noted before. Now, it’s almost impossible not to notice… and it may be about to guarantee his defeat.
(Cross-posted at Firedoglake.)