Some Further Thoughts on the Debate
First I want to thank Brandon for doing such a great job live-blogging the debate and stepping in for me when my plans changed at the last minute. He did a far better job than I would’ve. I just wanted to share some of my thoughts and experiences from the debate as well.
I watched the debate at a local pizza joint with a group of students from the University of Oregon’s chapter of College Democrats. First, let me say that that was easily the best debate of the campaign. I thought both candidates did a much better job of answering the questions this time around and that they really went back and forth instead of repeating bits and pieces from their stump speeches. The moderator, Bob Schieffer, did a great job following up on with the candidates on what they said. Obviously it was far from a perfect debate, but I think it was clearly a better and more interesting debate than the previous two.Not surprisingly, I think Obama won tonight. However, I also have to admit that tonight they both had some excellent zingers and articulations of their policies. Similarly, both had times when their answers fell flat, although I in particular felt that some of McCain’s answers just didn’t make sense while Obama’s bad responses were just articulated poorly. Let me talk about a couple moments in the debate really quickly.
First, was the question about whether or not either candidate would be willing to repeat some of the attacks in person that they had been making in ads. When that question was asked, everyone in the room got quiet and listened closely because they felt like it was going to be a big question with interesting answers. Surprisingly not much came of it with both candidates denouncing negative campaigning while saying that Presidential races are “tough.” However, the debate eventually came around to questions about Bill Ayers and I thought Obama did an amazing job answering them. He was clear and forceful in his answer and closed by reiterating the point that Americans are interested in results, not attacks on the other candidate. I think Obama really connected on that and I think that answer will further minimize what little effectiveness McCain’s attacks about Ayers were having.
Secondly was the topic of education. There were two different and important issues that were brought up here. The first was helping with the cost of college. For the whole campaign, Obama has had a much more detailed plan for college than McCain has (Obama’s and McCain’s current plans for education), so it’s no surprise that Obama came out swinging on this one. He explained why helping Americans pay for college is important and how we can help kids through college while getting their help in our communities. In particular, he had a great line: “America’s young people are not a special interest,” when comparing his education plan with McCain’s. I thought that was an amazing line and it led to great applause amongst the college students I was watching with. It was also interesting that most of the students there said that they would really love to get a grant for college that also helped them be active in their communities. These students, like students I’ve talked to elsewhere, see it as a win-win. These students need help paying for college and they desperately want to be more involved in their communities. Our generation wants to work together with our neighbors to make America better and we’re looking for leadership to help us do that.
The second part of the education debate was about vouchers, specifically vouchers in DC. Obviously most Americans don’t live in DC, but I went to high school in a suburb of DC, so I’m very familiar with DC’s school system and the problems that face it. McCain was lifting DC schools up as an example of where vouchers work, but that is patently absurd. DC schools are awful (consistantly rating below average on reading and math and with high rates of violence) and have gotten much worse as money has left the public schools in the form of vouchers being taken to private schools. What’s more, study after study has shown that the students who move from public schools to private aren’t doing any better academically than they were before and are actually doing worse in some cases. Regardless of the larger debate on vouchers and whether or not they work (personally I don’t think they do), DC is not a good example of how vouchers work and help students. Vouchers in the DC schools have made the situation worse for students in private and public schools.
The final point that’s worth noting, was the exchange about abortion. I’ve felt like this election actually has focused more on important issues than culture war issues than previous elections have. So I was kind of surprised at the intensity of the debate here, but I guess I shouldn’t have given the drastic difference in the two candidates records on abortion. The way McCain almost mocked the proposal to take into account the health of the mother when it comes to banning late term abortions was just bizarre. People in the restaurant actually gasped when McCain claimed that it was an example of an “extreme pro-abortion stance.” And those gasps are warranted. Obviously, there are many Americans that think abortion should be completely illegal. However, it’s pretty clear a majority of Americans believe the mother’s health should be taken into account when abortion is being considered. For McCain to identify that as an extreme and outlandish position really alienated a lot of people. That one answer is likely to cost him a significant number of votes on Nov. 4th. I also thought Obama’s point about finding common ground in reducing the number of people who want to get abortions was great and precisely the kind of thing voters are looking to hear this year. CNN’s live fav/unfav ratings certainly showed this as both men’s and women’s lines maxed out on the positive side. That is precisely the kind of rhetoric that Obama is known for and that helps keep him ahead in the polls.
Also let me say the whole thing about Joe the plumber was just ridiculous. Joe’s one guy, he’s not even really representative of the average American. The repeated references to him got tiring quickly. I pray that the next three weeks have less talk about Joe than the debate did. Even if they do, I think no one’s going to name their kid Joe for at least a decade.
So all that being said, I thought it was a great debate. Obama came off as very intelligent, thoughtful, and trustworthy which is all he has to do to win. Despite McCain attacking Obama more forcefully than he has in previous debates, I thought McCain actually came off as more personable than he has in the past. Given McCain’s declining favorability ratings (he’s at -8 in some recent polls) it is very important for McCain to come off as likeable if he has any chance of bringing his poll numbers back up. Of course, McCain did some damage to himself with his abortion remarks and some others that cancels out any gains from appearing likeable. Despite being the best debate of the cycle and despite both candidates landing some good blows on the other one, I don’t think much changed tonight. That’s bad news for McCain since most polls are now showing Obama with a double-digit lead nationally. At this point McCain’s going to need some major event or scandal to win. So going into the final weeks, it’s clear that Obama has the advantage, but tonight the American people won by actually having a good debate where the candidates answered questions.