Saturday Morning Quarterbacking: First Debate

Obama was magnificent in last night’s debate, staying laser-focused, sharp, and nailing his opponent on every last calumny (rightly, he didn’t even bother with the old “most liberal voter in the Senate” chestnut). Most remarkably, perhaps, he did all that without coming off as a jerk or resorting to imagine-there’s-no-heaven-it’s-easy-if-you-try rhetoric.

McCain probably did a better job of packaging his endless about-faces as principled-maverickism than he’s done at any other point in the campaign. But he doesn’t have the smoothness it would take to make that package totally convincing, and his weird facial tics didn’t help. Plus, it might be impressive that he’s been to Iraq and Afghanistan, but by the time he answered a question about accountability in Washington by recounting — ever so slowly — a story about General Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day, I was ready to slide off the couch.

Beyond that, I couldn’t help but notice how policy-wonkish the debate was. No one talked in the drearily abstract, vague terms I’ve come to expect from presidential debates — probably because the candidates are both senators. In what other debate in our time have the candidates bickered over what Henry Kissinger, of all people, thinks of their war plans?

Come to think of it, this’ll be the sixth presidential debate I’ve watched. How did this stack up against the others? Pretty well, as I recall.

1992. Watched it in fifth grade. Remember little except constant use of the word “gridlock.”

1996. My only memory is from a town hall meeting Clinton and Dole did on MTV. Both were asked where they stood on gay rights. Clinton gave a wonderfully expansive, generous, and short answer. Dole squeaked out a meandering society’s-got-to-have-standards answer, seeming punier with every word, until by the end he seemed ready to dry up and blow away in the wind.

2000. Remember the SNL parodies better. Gore’s constant sighing and eye-rolling gave future candidates a model for what not to do. (Gore’s handlers showed him the SNL sketch after the first debate, and he did better in the others, but that’s the one everyone remembers.) Bush, in my memory, is an almost total blank.

2004. Audiences were pretty divided, as I recall, but Kerry’s wet-blanket level-headedness didn’t have enough zing to overcome Bush’s surprisingly effective reduction of all issues to The War.

So far, Obama’s got the edge. McCain’s major advantage is that he talks in “real person” terms — stories, moral judgments, personal lessons. Obama, by comparison, sometimes seems airy. Bad as McCain was, I can vividly remember five or six things he said in the debate; with Obama, what I mainly remember is the conviction he puts into the start of every sentence: “Look…” “Listen…” “Now…”

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