Saturday, September 27, 2008

Debate Commentary. Sort of

I watched the first presidential debate last night (it's after midnight as I type this), the one McCain almost canceled, the one he was supposed to be strongest in because of his foreign policy expertise. Those were the expectations, then: That McCain would have an easier time with this debate than the following ones but that he had been throwing odd temper tantrums all the preceding week and it wasn't quite clear what that meant for his preparedness.

The substance of the debates was not terrible, actually, because the questions were substantial. Obama's answers were considerably better on the economic questions, though both candidates failed to realize that anyone who proposes cutting public spending when a major depression looms should probably be hung and quartered, never mind that most people don't understand how important NOT to cut public spending is in such a situation. To give you a simple example: Suppose that we do get a major recession and that lots of people lose their jobs. Is that the time to cut back on unemployment benefits, hmh? And how would cutting back those benefits affect the ability of people to go on consuming that some other workers could keep their jobs longer?

On other economic questions Obama showed very good preparedness (including pointing out that the high U.S. corporate tax rates don't mean that U.S. firms pay unusually high taxes, rather the reverse, because of all those loop holes the tax laws have, many of them voted in by McCain). McCain was mostly into talking about earmarks, a problem for sure, but not one which is driving any of the evil engines in this economic crisis. So Obama won the economics section in substance.

Now who won the foreign policy section is something that I sort of missed, because I started watching all that other crap. Remember the 2004 debates? And the post-debate debates about who won? And how we were suddenly told that Bush did really well in them because he turned up and looked prezdential? Even though Kerry was much better prepared, he came across as boring.

So I tried to see how people might actually rate this debate on the prezdential measure, and to me that measure appears to be very much a silverback measure of aggression and putdowns and taking hold of the debate without actually grabbing the other guy's throat. And on those grounds I thought McCain did better: He interrupted more, he yelled more, he belittled Obama a lot, he used lots of soundbites which had little to do with the topic under discussion. That seemed to be how the winner was determined in 2004. That was how prezdential was determined then.

I'm happy to say that I seem to be wrong (at the time of writing this, anyway). The rules for deciding on how one wins these debates have changed (or I never got them right in the first place) and most Independents (the crucial focus market here) thought that Obama did better. I'm very glad to hear that, because he certainly was better on the substance in the questions I paid attention to. A lot better.