Not because they aren't important. Last night's certainly was because it was a "crucial face off" minus only a drum-roll intro between an experienced political icon about whom we know so much and a relative newcomer about whom we know so little.
(The same certainly will be true of the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate if Sarah Palin doesn't announce that she is suspending campaigning to rush back to Juneau because of some crisis. Ha!)
No, I don't like debates because our expectations are too high, too low, too unrealistic and too unfair, the pronouncements that follow these clashes from the punditocracy are deeply subjective and the post-debate spin, as one commentator notes below, sometimes overshadows the debate itself. That being the case, John McCain will be more adept at polishing is own apple.
That so noted, I think that Barack Obama "won" the Mississippi debate by a nose. A majority of voters responding to overnight polls seemed to believe that he did even better, and relatively few pundits believed that McCain won outright.
The highlight of the debate came toward the end when McCain delivered the closest thing to a zinger in insisting that:
"I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience, and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas," but if you view the debate as a mini-laboratory to test that assertion, Obama more than held his own. He spoke knowledgeably and with ease about foreign affairs, although he was less confident when it came to the economy. But to no one's surprise, so was McCain.
Anyhow, that's it for me. And so in lieu of today's Quotes From Around Yon Blogosphere, here is a sampling of other debate reax:
Mark Halperin of Time magazine:
McCain was McCain — evocative, intense, and at times emotional, but also vague, elliptical, and atonal. Failed to deliver his "country first versus Obama first" message cleanly, even when offered several opportunities. Surprisingly, did not talk much about "change," virtually ceding the dominant issue of the race. Overall grade: B-
[Obama] went for a solid, consistent performance to introduce himself to the country. He did not seem nervous, tentative, or intimidated by the event, and avoided mistakes from his weak debate performances during nomination season (a professorial tone and long winded answers). Standing comfortably on the stage with his rival, he showed he belonged — evocative of Reagan, circa 1980. He was so confident by the end that he reminded his biggest audience yet that his father was from Kenya. Two more performances like that and he will be very tough to beat on Election Day. Overall grade: A-
Fred Barnes at The Weekly Standard:
Winning isn't enough. To gain from a presidential debate, there must be sound bites that appear on TV day after day and show your opponent in an unfavorable or embarrassing light. John McCain was better than Barack Obama in their first presidential debate last night. But the debate produced no knockout sound bites--none I noticed anyway--that might harm Obama's campaign. So McCain's win isn't likely to affect the presidential race.Will Bunch at Attytood:
. . . It wasn't a commanding performance, but it was a pretty good one for McCain. However, Obama had an easier task, a lower threshold to meet. He has a small but significant lead over McCain. To protect his lead, all he had to do was not make a serious mistake usable for sound bite purposes. Obama managed that task quite well.
To me, the biggest disappontment was the economy -- I don't think either one addressed the real problem or what needs to be done -- at least they'll have two more cracks at it. You would think that Wall Street greed would have been an easy target for either one of them. I think both McCain and Obama pretty much showed American who they are -- as noted earlier, it might be helpful for Obama to have a zinger or some Reaganesque self-depreciation, but that's not who he is.Alex Massie at The Debatable Land:
I expect that polls may show McCain a slight winner, but in 48 hours we'll be back to dealing with the diastrous consequences of McCain's ally George W. Bush. Which is why McCain can't afford to win on points. He needs a knockout.
He didn't get it tonight
McCain can't pronounce Ahmadinejad. Calls him "Armada Dinner Jacket". Since the bearded wonder doesn't control Iranian nuclear or foreign policy this doesn't matter so much. Woo! Obama points this out. Then suggests McCain is no Henry Kissinger. That may not be a bad thing of course. (Admittedly, Obama is talking about Iran.) Admits his Iranian policy "may not work". A welcome breath of realism . . .Ross Douthat at Atlantic.com:
A win for McCain. That's my insta-verdict, at least. Obama had quite a few effective moments: On middle-class tax cuts, on health care, and on the original decision to invade Iraq, he made points that went unrebutted, and sometimes I thought McCain laid it on a little thick with his lists of countries visited, shout-outs to ancient legislation he supported, and so forth. But the spectre of fiscal calamity blunted Obama's edge on domestic policy, and on foreign affairs McCain set the tempo and kept his rival on the defensive almost throughout, I thought: The Democratic nominee found himself alternating between me-tooism and defensiveness, albeit without making any serious missteps. The Obama camp's spin is that McCain talked endlessly about the past, and Americans want the election to be about the future - which is a fair point, in a sense, and if Obama ends up with a bounce in the polls from this debate, McCain's insistence on invoking his record and his experience at every opportunity won't look like a good strategy. But in the moment, in a debate that focused on foreign policy, I thought it wore well: Obama seemed smooth enough but also somewhat callow, and McCain just seemed like someone who's, well, "ready to lead," as all his campaign ads have it.Cernig at Newshoggers:
Well, the first debate just ended and Barack Obama put himself firmly in the Democratic hawk tradition. Other than the Iraq withdrawal - to which he's too firmly committed to backtrack - and the "negotiate with our enemies" which is standard Democratic fare even for hawks, he took a decidely belligerent lineRobert Stein at Connecting the Dots:
John McCain spent 90 minutes tonight telling voters Barack Obama "doesn’t understand" what America is facing, as Obama demonstrated a broad grasp of the 21st century issues besetting the economy and national security.
Body language was revealing in McCain's tight grin that occasionally morphed into a smirk under criticism, while Obama featured a relaxed smile and at least half a dozen times responded with a generous "John is right, but . . . "
Behind the difference in demeanor was the familiar clash of experience vs. change that is at the heart of the contest, with McCain distancing himself from Bush-Cheney and impressively name-dropping world leaders (but getting wrong the new president of Pakistan) to persuade voters that Obama is too naïve to deal with a dangerous world.
Michael Stickings at The Reaction:
Daniel Larison at Eunomia:
In general, I thought, McCain looked and sounded bitter, vindictive, and small. While Obama was presidential throughout, agreeing with McCain on occasion, exuding generosity and expansiveness and, above all, presenting a substantive articulation of his policies and positions, McCain dismissed him repeatedly as "naive," turning much of the debate into an ad hominem assault. He never even looked at Obama.Which is not to say that Obama won, let alone won easily. I"d say it was roughly a draw, with McCain doing well at times, notably in presenting himself, however inaccurately, as a long-time maverick with tons of experience. As well, Obama could have done better connecting McCain to Bush on issues like tax cuts for the wealthy and Iraq, and pointing out just how wrong McCain has been on those and other issues.
If [McCain] cannot scare the public into thinking that Obama is a lightweight McGovernite who loves dictators, he has absolutely nothing left to offer as an alternative. Obama has already locked himself into a certain set of hawkish positions, and there is now little advantage in becoming less hawkish. He has already changed enough positions for one year, and if there is one constant it is that Obama never changes his views to adopt a more anti-establishmentarian or marginal position. As long as people keep perpetuating the idea, or the hope, that he is some kind of dove who represents some significantly different vision of America's role in the world there will continue to be this shock and dismay when he restates the views he has held all along. Meanwhile, it will be possible for McCain and his backers to frame Obama as copying and following McCain, when the unfortunate truth is that Obama came to many of these terrible positions all on his own long before the election season.Ron Dreher at Crunchy Con:
Well, I think Obama has to be judged the winner. Nobody's mind will be changed by this debate, but Obama seemed loose and confident and not intimidate by McCain. McCain seemed growly and tense, though more focused than usual. Because McCain didn't beat Obama, and because Obama is ahead right now, Obama wins a narrow victory.Kevin Drum at Mother Jones:
Am I off base, or was this one of the most soporific presidential debates in a while? Frankly, I didn't think either one of them did very well. There was way too much rambling, and way too few sharp points. Overall, McCain was more lively than Obama, but if the point of the debate was for Obama to show that he could hold his own on national security, then count it a win for Obama. I wouldn't call him a big winner, but he certainly did at least as well as McCain, and that might have been all he needed.Michael Tomasky at Comment Is Free: America:
I admit it. I've never been quite this confused about a debate in a long time. I think this may be one of those cases where the post-debate debate, the next 48 to 72 hours, is far more crucial than usual. . . .
The polling the rest of us do know about supports the view that Obama "won". A CBS poll of 500 uncommitted voters who watched found this: 40% said Obama won, 38% said it was a draw, and 22% called McCain the winner. CNN had Obama winning 51-38% overall, winning on the economy 58-37%, and even winning on Iraq 52-47%.
But let's watch what happens over the next two or three days. The McCain campaign, as I've written a hundred times, is geared toward winning news cycles. They will see the above numbers and go into overdrive to counter-spin. I don't think Obama's win, if that's what it was, was so decisive that the McCain team can't reverse spin it. It's McCain who's behind, and it's McCain who needs to change minds here.
Photograph by Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press