lessons from America

Liveblogging the first presidential debate

So I am trying something new. Liveblogging a big speech on my own site rather than or elsewhere.

Another new thing is following proceedings and people’s reactions via twitter. for the live feed.  Twitter s something I first started seeing in good use at the Big Tent and enjoying things so far, even if some very silly comments and dross amidst the good stuff.

I like this twist on the debate drinking game: donating money to Democrat candidates or Obama on mention of key words rather than downing a drink.  Maybe it appeals more as its almost 2am and I had my fill of alcohol earlier in the week at Labour Conference.

I’m watching / listening to the debate via CNN, but as well as the twitter feed (which is scrolling too fast for comfort there’s so much traffic on it) am keeping an eye on 538′s fab blog for analysis.  They’ve just got a shout out from CNN so they’re chuffed about that.

We’re underway … with the rules. Now I am excited and nervous.  Jim Lehrer sounds strict and no nonsense kind of guy as the moderator.

Obama kicks off. Forget how thin he looks on TV. A bit “programmed” is how one person on twitter sees his opening 2min speech and have to agree. Not quite engaging with me.

McCain sounding old and sombre and croaky. And not uptodate, as Senator Kennedy out of hospital  a short while ago yet McCain said he was still there.

McCain mentions the Normandy invasion. It makes me think he might have actually been there.  And reminds me of his age.  But he does a good bit on accountability and corporate greed.  Obama’s tack is try to connect today’s problems with failings over last 8 years – ie Bush and Republican mistakes.

Some back and forth on earmarks.  McCain trying to stick it to Obama. Its a fine balancing act, and I’m surprised there’s been no mention of Palin and bridges to nowhere. Perhaps the water is so muddy there in terms of who is telling the truth and what is spin that Obama doesn’t want to go into it.

This tax and earmarks and regulation thing has got a bit boring. Obama seems to be over-complicating things. McCain better at soundbites and buzz words in this section and going on offensive.  O is hitting back a bit on oil company tax breaks though.

Plenty of comments on twitter and 538 about eye contact and McCain not looking very much at Obama, even when speaking directly to him.

McCain just painted Obama as “that far to the left” and the most liberal current Senator. That’s patently ridiculous to sentient people, but is a line that they believe must work.

This for Nate on 538: “McCain, calling out ethanol subsidies as a bad thing, would seem (correctly) to have recognized that he’s lost Iowa.”  My watching of West Wing lead to my the same conclusion when I heard McCain’s comments.  I happen to agree with McCain on this issue, especialy given the effect of grain prices in the developing world partly thanks to so much land being given over to bio-fuel production.

“If we are going to be strong at home as well as abroad” – I like that Obama line and it allows a good narrative on shifting priorities and spending to domestic, progressive matters whilst reminding listeners of the follies of Bush’s foreign policy.

This is so much better already than the last of the Obama-Clinton primary debates.  The format of 2 min intros answering a specific question followed by 5mins of freer to-and-fro is generally working and the moderator has to be given a lot of that credit.

McCain did a good spiel about his maverick status, rolling out a list of where he has disagreed with his party and with Bush.  And referred to Palin as a fellow maverick too.

Finally after 40mins we are on to foreign policy: the original theme of this debate.  Lessons from Iraq is the question.  McCain pushing the successes of Petraues and the surge.  Obama’s answer – on why the war was wrong in the first place and the “we took our eye off the ball” and ignored Afghanistan argument – is almost word for word what he said during the primaries. Full marks for consistency. And it resonates strongly now because of waste of money in Iraq versus cash-strapped US economy.

Both candidates speaking quite flatly. Though McCain now getting more animated and tone modulating in talking about Iraq. You can tell he really believes in the surge success.   He’s trying to really hit Obama, but coming across to me a bit petty or snarky in his attacks. But it has got Obama more animated and strong in tone now too.

Someone on twitter just asked “are they running for president of Iraq?” Fair point, in that the last few mins have focused on the running of Iraq more than the running of US.  Does go to show how America is still the imperial power in Iraq  – not exactly a people running themselves on their own there.

Gordon Brown would be proud of the seriousness of this debate: its tone and in-depth policy discussions and general lack of histrionics or pyrotechnics.  Doesn’t make for quite as gripping viewing though.  It can do though. Or it did in the West Wing live presidential debate in series 7.  I can’t work out what the missing ingredient is here. Or rather why this isn’t quite what we were expecting. Maybe it is McCain’s overall flat, slow delivery.  Maybe it is Obama playing safe and not counter-punching enough.

The temperature’s just gone up. We are onto Iran. And McCain is raising the prospect of a second holocaust and generally trying to scare people by talking up Iran’s threat.  Obama a little more circumspect and uses the d word – diplomacy.

McCain is really going for the Bush tactics of fear. And trying for the Jewish / Zionist vote in his repeat references to the threats to Israel.  McCain brings out another axis of evil, this time with the right’s favourite bogeyman Chavez on the list.  Obama gives a very good, straight response explaining his diplomatic strategy and that he is prepared to try these things and will do what he thinks right and necessary, rather than an ideological and irrational zero-contact policy that McCain proposes.

Let’s lighten the mood a bit with a little diversion. Just seen this on Twitter feed: Sarah Palin nicknames: “Bible Spice” and “Caribou Barbie”.   I have mixed feelings. Funny and clever yes. But a bit condensending of women in politics too.

McCain trys to curry favour by saying “my friend, Kissinger.”  Can I try that same trick and say “my relative, Kissinger”?  Am I automatically a better voice on foreign policy because of that association?

We’re on to Russia now. This wasn’t on the radar in the primaries so an interesting test for both candidates, and also a chance to win over some people who will hear their perspective on Russia for the first time.  McCain lists lots of Russian names and places, to emphasise his experience and knowledge in this area. Or just to try redeeming himself after struggling with pronouncing the Iranian President’s name earlier.  Obama on the other hand neatly turns the question into one on energy and looking to the future and alternative sources of energy, where is is stronger.

Just had a quick look at the headlines on DailyKos. Georgia10 has some excellent anaysis: “we’ve seen that the debate styles, not surprisingly, reflect the campaign styles of these two candidates.  Barack Obama is occasionally delivering elegant, understated smackdowns (his response to the McCain’s corporate tax rate claim was brilliant).  McCain, on the other hand, is jabbing erratically, trying to squeeze in a hit here or there, but is largely missing his mark.”  That’s very well observed and succintly put. Will anyone come up with a better account of tonight? 

Final question on “are we safer now, or could there be another 9/11?”  McCain takes it back to Iraq and tries to have a go at his opponent; where as Obama opens it up to Alqaida globally and then takes it back to domestic concerns.  That very much has been a common theme tonight.

 “There are some advantages in experience” – McCain seems to be deliberately referencing Reagan’s famous quote. And goes on about not needing any “on the job training”.  He plays up his flexibility and judgement versus – as he sees it – Obama’s stubborness (like Bush) and inexperience and wrong judgement.
They both end trying to focus on connecting with the heart rather than the head: Obama talking about his father and linking foreign with domestic / financial concerns; McCain with some moving references to veterans and PoW. 

And that’s all for the contributions of the two candidates.  Now it is over to their surrogates and supporters to make the all-important interventions that will determine exactly how the media reports on tonight’s debate.  You don’t get anything on this scale or organisation after the leader’s speech at party conference.

The main talking point seems to be “presidential” versus “political”.  McCain campaign’s official statement says McCain was the former, Obama the latter. Very few of the bloggers, tweets or commentators I’ve read so far seem to agree with that.  The opposite was much more evident.  Especially as Obama made far fewer partisan comments (except maybe on Bush’s role in economic and foreign policy failings) and jibes; instead often given the more statesmanlike and considered answers.

Kos makes a good point about the quality of the moderation of this debate.  I’ve referred to that already, but agree with him its worth congratulating Jim Lehrer on his efforts tonight.  Let’s hope for more of the same in terms of the quality of the moderation.

According to pro-Obama bloggers, here is his best moment of the night:

“So John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the “surge,” the war started in 2003. At the time, when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said you knew where the weapons of mass destruction were — and you were wrong. You said we were going to be greeted as liberators — you were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shi’a and Sunni, and you were wrong. …if the question is, who is best equipped as the next president to make good decisions about how we use our military, how we make sure we are prepared and ready for the next conflict, then I think we can take a look at our judgment.”

Before I end this political fest and go to sleep, it is worth acknowledging a point made in various other places.  This was quite a heavy-going, wonky debate. How many people actually really paid attention to it and stayed with it? How much will it change the race; or were people bored and switched off?  McCain needed to make a bit of headway, so it matters most to him if this is seen by undecideds and the non-politically obsessed as a bore-draw.  Again the post-debate spin / coverage and who did best in the expectations games will be important.  So worth following things the next few days.

Next up debate-wise (on Thursday) are the two Vice Presidential candidates.  Palin is still doing her invisbility act, where as Biden is revelling in his ‘surrogate’ role tonight.  Wll be fascinating to see what happens at that debate.

Thanks Nate and Sean for your insights. And all those twittering. That’s all folks until the next time.


September 27, 2008 - Posted by | debates | , , ,

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