On Friday night, Hassan and I raced home in the rain from a dinner to catch the debate. We came in just as Obama was warming up, and were very pleased to see he was doing so well. We had both been slightly worried – we felt Obama’s performance in the primary debates had been inconsistent, a bit too professorial and nuanced. On Friday he was still his natural nuanced self, but his sentences were shorter and clearer, with far fewer “ums,” and with a fair dose of phrases like “Senate inside baseball” and “hard to swallow.”
I thought the debate was a victory for Obama for a couple of reasons. First, he won the “body language” debate. He looked relaxed, presidential, and even personable in the way he looked McCain, Lehrer, and the audience in the eye, and called McCain, “John,” speaking directly to him. McCain’s scowling, muttering, and inability or unwillingness to look Obama in the eye came across looking petulant and contemptuous. The lack of eye contact, in particular, may go down in history with Al Gore’s sigh and HW looking at his watch.
Second, McCain’s major goal was to paint Obama as naive and inexperienced on foreign policy, and it completely backfired. First of all, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is a risky strategy to begin with. Democrats tried this on W., and it didn’t work, because it came off as elitist and condescending. Now McCain is coming off that way, especially since he’s being so blunt about it. Following the “show-it-don’t-tell-it” rule, Obama never directly responded to the accusation of being naive, but his clear fluency and mastery of every major foreign policy issue (down to the names and correct pronunciation of relatively less known foreign leaders) were far more effective than any direct response. If anything, McCain’s accusations of naivete only highlighted the fact that concerns about Obama’s lack of experience and knowledge were completely misplaced.
On a not entirely related note, one of my favorite moments of the debate was when McCain accused Obama of having a liberal voting record, and Obama responded that most of that was just because of his opposition to the failed policies of the Bush administration. I don’t think the L-word has been an effective attack for Republicans since it shot Michael Dukakis out of the tank, but this was an especially effective response.
A bunch of the pundits immediately said McCain had won, but so far it seems like voters, especially uncommitted voters, were more impressed by Obama. Several polls have indicated that folks thought Obama won, and the early results of the tracking polls in the past day show Obama maintaining or expanding his lead. One focus group in particular said that the dials for McCain went way down every time he said Obama was naive, though I can’t seem to find that link at the moment.
UPDATE: Thanks to Hassan, I found that link on focus group ratings, which was from Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic.