Saturday, September 27, 2008


Grading the First Presidential Debate


John McCain

Substance: His arguments were hard to follow at the beginning, but he found his voice as the debate progressed, although he never seemed fully in control of his message. He had plenty to say about the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russia, but often bogged down his own answers when trying to unfurl quips and soundbites. Stuck with bumper sticker slogans on the economy, and while he got a bit more detailed on foreign policy, he stayed at his usual level of abstraction. If he truly knows more about the world than Obama, he didn't show it in this debate.

Grade: B-

Style: Cluttered, jumpy, and often muddled. Frequent coughing early on helped neither his arguments nor his image. Jokes about being deaf and anecdotes about Normandy and George Shultz seemed ill-advised - even his pen was old. His presentation was further hindered by his wandering discussion of the differing heights of North and South Koreans and his angry assertion about how well he knows Henry Kissinger. Fell into the classic politician's trap of inserting familiar stump speech applause lines into debate responses - which only works if done with enthusiasm and clarity (and if received by applause - a big No-No in Lehrer's auditorium, which the audience obeyed seriously and silently). Keenly aware of the grand, grave occasion, McCain wavered between respectful and domineering, and ended up awkward and edgy.

Grade: C-

Offense: Emphasized his bread and butter issues of taxes and spending, and hit Obama on his failure to visit Iraq and his expressed willingness to meet with dictators. But while mocking his opponent on a few occasions, which reflected his acute disrespect for Obama, he did so in an insufficiently sharp and detailed manner - and unevenly worked elements of his rival's record into his attacks. Still he was utterly confident about his own experience, knowledge, and policies, even when tripped by his own tongue and distracted by the strains of debate practice. The main problem: Obama's obvious preparation and sharp answers contradicted McCain's frequent claims that the Democrat was uninformed and "didn't understand" key issues.

Grade: C+

Defense: He managed to ignore most of Obama's jibes, but was eventually baited into giving an extended answer about his policy differences with President Bush, after his opponent repeatedly mentioned McCain's regular support of Bush's budgets. Was visibly riled when clashing with Obama over a variety of issues, including Iraq, sanctions, and spending. He also chose to boast about Sarah Palin (although not by name) as his maverick partner, who, after her shaky week, may no longer be his ace in the hole.

Grade: B-

Overall: 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-

(Read Mark Halperin's take on Barack Obama's performance)

Barack Obama

Substance: Quite manifestly immersed in the past, present, and future details of policy, and eager to express his views, which have been expanded, honed, and solidified during the last 18 months of hard campaigning. Still, he did avoid the nitty-gritty details of policy positions in favor of broad principles and references to working Americans, thereby not presenting the kind of specifics that some voters are waiting to hear from him.

Grade: B+

Style: Polished, confident, focused. Fully prepared, and able to convey a real depth of knowledge on nearly every issue. He was unhurried, and rarely lost his train of thought even when the debate wended and winded - and uttered far fewer of his trademark, distracting, "ums." At times, however, Obama revealed the level of his preparation by faltering over a rehearsed answer. He seemed to deliberately focus on the moderator and the home audience, with McCain as an afterthought - except when on the attack. Chose to avoid humor, for the most part, in favor of a stern demeanor, and in the process, came off as cool as a cucumber.

Grade: A

Offense: Linking McCain to Bush in his very first answer, he kept it up as his primary line of attack. Forcefully hit McCain for his early support of the Iraq War. Though he never drew blood, he did keep McCain a bit off balance, often with clever references to McCain's recent statements.

Grade: B

Defense: Had a reasonable answer for every charge that came his way - with little anger, bluster, or anxiety. Often interrupting McCain attacks with swift explanations and comebacks, he managed to spin accusations of being liberal as evidence of his relentless opposition to George Bush (in replies that were clearly planned). Offered a rather clumsy alternative to McCain's well-known, moving story of wearing the bracelet of a soldier lost in Iraq (a gift from the soldier's mother), with a story about a bracelet of his own. Fearless, without condescension, he attempted the gracious move of agreeing with or complimenting a McCain position, occasionally to his own detriment.

Grade: A-

Overall: 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-

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