Thursday, December 25, 2008

My grades for 1st Presidential debate

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on October 2nd in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

Today I want to discuss my impressions about the performances of both candidates in last Friday’s first US Presidential debate. While there will be two more Presidential debates following tonight’s only debate between Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden and McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin, historically the tone and substance for the entire series of Presidential debates is set during the course of the first of the three debates thus making it the most important one of the three to watch.
Even though my sentiments favoring Senator Obama in this year’s election are well known to most if not all of the readers of this column, my impressions of the candidate’s performances are based on both the style and the substance of their responses to the questions that have been posed to them by the moderator. In fact in past Presidential debates I have quite often given higher marks to the Presidential candidate I oppose (i.e. President Bush in 2004, Bill Clinton in 1992) than to the candidate I support.
Having said that, I want to begin my analysis by first giving my readers an overall mark for each candidate’s performance, followed by my reasons for giving each of them their respective grade. I will then use this same format in next week’s column about the Vice Presidential debates and any subsequent columns I might write about the remaining US Presidential debates. Practically speaking, baring a major gaffe or extremely poor performance by either candidate, these debates don’t sway many votes to or from either party’s presidential nominee. The real audience is the 10-15% of the electorate which still remains undecided about who to vote for with only a few weeks left before Election Day.
To begin with, I must first note that this initial Presidential debate almost didn’t happen. On Wednesday afternoon, just over 48 hours before the first debate was scheduled to begin, John McCain announced he was suspending his Presidential campaign so that he could devote his time and energy to resolving the financial crisis which has enveloped America’s investment banks and financial institutions on Wall Street. McCain then challenged Obama to also suspend campaigning for President and to agree to postpone the first Presidential debate.
But Obama, as well as many independent political observers, viewed McCain’s move as a political ploy and refused to take the bait. Senator Obama questioned why John McCain couldn’t seem to deal with two problems, preparing for a debate about US foreign policy and dealing with a US economic crisis, at the same time. Obama then challenged McCain saying that the financial crisis underscored the need to have just such a debate between both candidates about the future direction America would be taking.
In the end it was McCain who blinked and decided he had better show up at the debate in Oxford Mississippi even though he had previously said he wouldn’t if the US Congress had been unable to settle on a resolution to the problems on Wall Street before the debate. So Obama won the debate about the debates before the initial debate ever got underway. Not a very auspicious start for John McCain if you ask me.
As for the actual debate Friday evening, since I am still a Republican I will begin with the Republican candidate, John McCain, to whom I gave a passing grade of C+ mainly for the substance rather than the style of his initial debate performance.
Last week I closed my column saying that “I believe America will vote for change. Barack Obama embodies change. McCain doesn’t!” Well in last Friday’s debate John McCain apparently decided to cede this issue to Senator Obama, since McCain barely used the term “change” in any of his responses or remarks. I must confess I found this surprising since John McCain has been hammering away at the “change” message in his TV advertising and stump speeches for the last four weeks.
Ever since McCain’s announcement that Sarah Palin would be his Vice President, John has been trying to emphasize the fact that he is the “change” candidate who will change the way government works in Washington DC. But during the debate he focused on burnishing his image as a “maverick”, twice using the line that he has never won a “Miss Congeniality” award from his Republican colleagues or the Bush administration.
McCain had difficulty finding his footing during the first half hour of the debate when both candidates were answering questions about America’s current financial crisis. But he was folksy, used his campaign slogans about the economy effectively and avoided Obama’s taunts about McCain’s support of Bush’s tax and economic policies. On Iraq McCain repeatedly avoided his support for the war and instead emphasized his support for the US troop surge. He became more comfortable in the last hour and was also more aggressive in taking the attack to Obama in his responses to foreign policy questions.
On the other hand I gave Senator Obama a grade of B+ largely based on the stylistic improvements I noted in the way Obama responded to questions as compared to Obama’s previous debate performances during the Democratic primaries.
Obama’s answers to all of the questions were more concise and less professorial than those he often gave in previous Democratic debates. In contrast to McCain’s poking fun at himself and repeated attempts to make humorous quips, Obama avoided humor and came across as the more calm and businesslike of the two. Obama was confident and prepared with imminently reasonable answers for every question from the moderator as well as every accusation hurled at him by an oft times scolding and cranky sounding John McCain.
Obama did a better job of speaking directly to his opponent and engaging with the moderator and the audience while McCain ignored them and directed his responses to those watching on TV. While this was by far the best debate appearance I have seen from John McCain, it was likewise Obama’s best debate performance this year.

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