Sep 28, 2008

Thoughts on the first BHO-JSM debate

I thought both candidates did well as far as debate performance goes, and they both succeeded in projecting the types of persona that have defined their respective candidacies so far. Obama appeared serious, thoughtful, assertive and "presidential" (whatever that means, but there is nearly a consensus about that characterization). McCain was the same avuncular elder statesman he was in his acceptance speech (which I still think was a success, despite what almost all the pundits say), friendly to the audience but aggressive toward enemies. McCain's problem is that he counts his opponent among those enemies, which works great at the Republican convention, but not so great in front of a diverse audience and face-to-face with the opponent.

My prediction - which now appears too pessimistic - was that the debate would not change the poll numbers. I thought both candidates scored some important points with concerned leaners. Those who already prefer Obama, but worry about his lack of experience and doubt his leadership ability, were certainly reassured by his confidence, poise, and control of issues. And those who already prefer McCain, but worry that he may be losing his mind because of his recent erratic decisions and apparent episodes of confusion, were reassured that he is still able to think quickly on his feet and stay focused for 90 minutes. I thought the two effects would approximately balance and that the free fall of McCain's numbers would end in a cushioned landing (although without a bounce).

In thinking about the effect of the debate on the election, I try to ignore the substantive points because I assume that a vast majority of undecided voters are so uninformed that they are unable to assess those points critically and intelligently. The same holds for McCain's lies and misconceptions - I assume that anybody who has not yet realized that McCain is a pathological liar and that most of his economic and foreign policy ideas are sophomoric is not able to draw any such conclusions from the debate. And I still think those assumptions are correct.

Where I think I was wrong, though, is in discounting the effect of body language. Although early pundits' comments picked up on McCain's avoidance of eye contact, I thought that the significance of body language was hyped up in the media. I based my thinking on the 2000 Gore-Bush debates, when viewers didn't seem to notice Gore's alleged sighs and eye rolling until they were spoonfed those talking points by the media; and I also thought that, as much as McCain has lost the support he once had in "his base", the pundits weren't going to nitpick on his body language as they did on Gore's. What I overlooked was that McCain's physical clues were real, and the kind that people perceive instinctively (as some primate behavior researchers have pointed out).

It was also a rare opportunity to see the candidates standing side-by-side. When you see McCain alone, you can do a mental adjustment for his age and perceive a relatively fit and vigorous man, but that is much more difficult to do when you see him next to his much younger, fitter and - don't underestimate the importance of this - four inches taller opponent.

OK, enough about appearances and the effect on the race; I cannot write a post this long without saying anything about the contents of the debate. But I won't say anything about their disagreements; nobody will be surprised to hear that, whenever the two candidates disagreed, I preferred Obama's position. However, I deplore some of their agreements.

I was disappointed - or rather, I have been disappointed for a while, this is not new - that Obama agreed with McCain on two clearly wrong foreign policy positions: that the surge in Iraq worked, and that Russia bears all the blame for invading Georgia. I am hoping that Obama and Biden are smarter than to adopt those simplistic falsehoods, and that they have only temporarily adopted those talking points because they concluded that now is not the time to try to convince the American people that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Since that would almost certainly be a correct assessment, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt, and hope that the Obama-Biden administration would be more thoughtful than they are willing to show now.

Of course, even in the worst case (that they really agree with those statements), they would not be any worse than the alternative, and on a host of other issues the alternative is simply unthinkable.

UPDATE: Yep, I hear "Horseshit!" in this clip.

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