Debate Disappointments

To my relief, the overnight polls are out, and it looks like Obama won pretty handily.

Suffice to say, that was not my read of the night.  I wouldn’t say McCain won, exactly – he really failed to say anything new beyond his suggestion that the government be empowered to buy up bad mortgages and force revaluations of them based on their current market price, a power the government apparently has thanks to the new bailout “McCain to the rescue” bill.  And yes, he still seemed cranky, and spent much more time attacking, and this was simply a weird moment:

But still, although nothing I saw from McCain tonight would even come close to meeting the threshold of making me want to vote for him, I was supremely disappointed in Obama’s performance.  It was hardly the “Full Palin”, as they say, but he seemed to spend an awful lot of the time not answering the questions being asked.  The most egregious example, although hardly the only one, was the final question, one which I found entirely inane, although my parents actually thought it was an interesting question: “What don’t you know, and how will you learn it.”

Obama, after making the requisite joke about how Michelle would be all too happy to tell America all the things he doesn’t know, and how he mostly learns the answers by asking her, pivoted into a brief explication about how he doesn’t know what challenges the next 4 or 8 years will bring, but he does know about how wonderful America is, and how he never would have the opportunity to be here if not for it.  Standard biography stuff.  Then off into ‘more of the same’, and ‘change we can believe in.’  Basically, lacking the time for one, he used this question as his chance to make a closing argument.

McCain’s answer was, actually, a bit better.  He was more explicit about saying that the challenges we face are unprecedented, and that there will be unexpected things that pop up, saying “We will be talking about countries that, we hardly know where they are on a map, some Americans.”  Then he did the same thing as Obama, pivoting off into unrelated material, failing utterly to answer the second, and more interesting, half of the final question.

I know that it was a bit special, because the candidates were not given the chance to make a closing statement, and so they used the final question to lead them to whatever they wanted to say.  And you know what?  I expect that from the Republicans.  They’ve made it all too clear this cycle that they have no new ideas, nothing to bring to the discussion beyond backbiting and partisan bickering and name-calling.  But, honestly, I have higher expectations for a Democrat, especially in this format, and doubly-especially when he is winning.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing, entitled ‘Game On’, about the debate between President Bartlet and Senator Ritchie from Florida, his Republican opponent.  After a question on taxes, Ritchie responds with one of his patented 10-word answers about state government, and lowering taxes, typically content-free and snark-rich.  Bartlet leaps into one of my favorite single moments of the series, responding:

You think states should do the governing wall-to-wall. That’s a perfectly valid opinion. But your state of Florida got $12.6 billion in federal money last year– from Nebraskans, and Virginians, and New Yorkers, and Alaskans, with their Eskimo poetry. 12.6 out of a state budget of $50 billion, and I’m supposed to be using this time for a question, so here it is: Can we have it back, please?

We don’t see much else of the debate, but the clear point is that Bartlet is killing Ritchie, and at the end of the debate, Ritchie admits as much, saying that the race is over and Bartlet has won it.  In the Spin Room afterwards, Press Secretary C.J. informs a Republican economist type, who is backing Bartlet and was prepared to play the good soldier in responding to a question from reporters, to instead talk about how complex the issue is, and how there are no simple answers, and even Bartlet’s plan, while better than the alternatives, leaves quite a bit to be desired.

It’s the action of a team which knows that it’s going to win and can, for once, be completely and utterly honest.  Now, I don’t expect Obama’s campaign to go quite that far – I’m not 100% convinced that they’re going to win yet, and I have been about as rosy outlook as you can be for most of the last year.  But a little more willingness to set aside the political posturing and to try and be the grownup on the stage would, to my mind, be both completely appropriate and make the debate-watching experience much more enjoyable.

So, not my most beloved morning of the campaign, but, then again, I’m not one of those few, proud, undecided voters – in fact, I already sent in my mail-in ballot, so there’s literally no possibility of courting my vote anymore.  But still, I think that Obama could stand to take the chance of sacrificing just a few votes in return for raising the level of our political discourse.  I think he can, and wish he would, be confident enough to do that…

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