The debate Friday night was fascinating.
My impression, subtracting my bias for Obama, is that the debate was surprisingly serious and issue-based, and that it was an effective tie. Given Obama’s lead in the polls, this result means it was nothing but good for him.
The body language was just as interesting as what they said aloud. McCain almost never looked at Obama; he acted like he was being pestered by an annoying kid off somewhere to his left. He looked straight forward or straight down constantly. I got the impression this was a deliberate tactic so he would not be tempted to raise his voice or lose his famous temper. It’s possible he is hard of hearing enough to need to turn his ear to Obama to hear him, but that doesn’t explain why McCain wouldn’t look at him even when McCain was the one talking. Obama, on the other hand, constantly sought McCain’s eyes and was practically begging the moderator to respond. He was also visibly taking notes while McCain was speaking. McCain did, also, though it was less noticeable.
As for tactics, McCain’s most visible one was the “Senator Obama just doesn’t seem to understand X,” which he used on over a half-dozen occasions. He also plucked the heartstrings fairly often, though this backfired more than once. I’ve noted some conservative blogs talking about the “bracelet moment” as if it was a serious misstep for Obama, but I remember it quite differently; I barely registered the delay for the soldier’s name, but I definitely noticed the huge difference in what the soldier’s mother asked for. He had no problem recalling that. I’d also note that McCain’s statement about his bracelet seemed a rehearsed commonplace for a policy question on Iraq, something he’s used on the stump many times; Obama’s response was, literally, off-the-cuff.
Obama’s standard argumentative fare was a more formal declaration of stasis: “Senator McCain and I have a fundamental disagreement about X” that was almost left always unanswered by McCain. Also, while McCain’s usual rebuttal was to declare that Obama didn’t understand something, Obama’s replies tended to attack either McCain’s judgment or complicate what McCain presented as a no-brainer.
The debate would have been far more interesting if McCain had ever directly responded to Obama and turned any of the moderator’s questions toward an explicitly moral issue – say on why the wishes of McCain’s bracelet-mom take precedence over Obama’s bracelet-mom. But he wasn’t a particualrly philosophical fellow; he insisted on presenting Obama as a man that couldn’t grasp the simplest of political and military concepts – a naive youngster. I’m sure this tactic (or strategy, as McCain likes to say) went well with firm McCain supporters, but independents (and the polling after the debate seems to bear this out) saw two qualified, informed candidates, and this undercut McCain’s argument. Obama isn’t a Quayle; he can’t simply be brushed off.
The same dynamic will be present during the upcoming vice-presidental debate, but Biden will be the one with the option to attack Palin as not understanding basic concepts. Palin’s numbers are already incredibly low, but Biden cannot settle for mere implication, as the expectations for her are already so modest that she could meet them easily if he is not at least somewhat aggressive.
I expect McCain to mix things up in the next debate as what he did this time was largely ineffective; perhaps he will try looking at Obama this time. Having observed Obama for the last year, I doubt his basic approach will vary. He treated McCain much like he did Clinton in the primary debates, evenly and unemotionally, and offering a peace branch of agreement, “I agree with John on this issue,” for every jab. McCain got a TV ad out of Obama’s statements to that effect, but I can’t remember him ever agreeing with Obama in the debate about anything. Who’s the bipartisan maverick, I wonder?