The second presidential debate didn’t explore much new territory, with the candidates repeating talking points over and over. Yet the strongest line of the night went to Barack Obama, when the candidates were asked if health care was a right, a privilege, or a responsibility.
After John McCain’s slightly scolding “responsibility” spiel, Obama stated bluntly that healthcare was a right. The question was his to lose, much like the election seems to be at this point, and he nailed it.
Though McCain spoke of bipartisanship over and over, it was Obama who was willing to agree with McCain when he was right and disagree when he thought he was wrong, without seeming disagreeable. And it was Obama who gave what seemed to be the only straight answers of the night to audience members.
Though the question-to-actual-answer ratio was somewhere in the neighborhood of 9:1, Obama did manage to cut through the spin a few more times than his rival, explaining his health care policy in simple yet specific terms, and stressing fairness in his tax policy. He again managed to emphasize the middle class and strike out at high-paid fat-cat executives, this time with the specific example of AIG execs taking a spa trip on the taxpayers’ bailout dollars.
Yet again, McCain’s obsession with spending cuts rang false, due to the fact that he doesn’t want to cut the biggest expense of all: war. And toward the end he seemed to actually be making Obama’s arguments for him, talking about the need for someone with the judgment to know when American troops were needed and could be useful—a lousy argument to make, considering McCain supported the highly unpopular Iraq war from the beginning.
He threw out another hail Mary early in the conversation, saying that the government would have to buy up “all those bad mortgages,” but in the midst of his rant about deficits and spending this line just made him sound muddled, like he hadn’t thought it through.
Trying to tie Obama to Freddie Mac backfired when Obama noted that McCain’s campaign employs a former lobbyist for the mortgage lender. McCain’s repeated assurances that he’s taken on the lobbyists in recent years are patently false, unless he means having “taken them” on his payroll.
And on foreign policy, McCain once again dug himself into a hole, repeating over and over again that he knew how to “get” bin Laden—but if he knows how to, what’s he been waiting for?
As far as demeanor is concerned, Obama once again was calm and cool, while McCain again seemed irritable, making a jab at moderator Tom Brokaw when he was asked who he’d like for treasury secretary. McCain’s “Not you, Tom,” was unnecessary, much as his referral to Obama as “that one,” later on.
McCain seemed to have taken a page from Sarah Palin’s book, at times appearing condescending and talking to the audience as if they were children. He mentioned, in reference to the treasury secretary, needing someone that Americans could relate to, and this was always George W. Bush’s biggest selling point. Yet for all Bush’s faults, malapropisms and mispronunciations, he never sounded this condescending.
Obama had a few zingers for McCain—notably, “The straight talk express lost a wheel on that one,”—but was mainly relaxed and comfortable. Only once did he disrupt the process to request time to respond to his opponent, which prompted more petulance from McCain, who whined, “If he gets a follow-up I want a follow-up.” Obama also turned around McCain’s refrain of “Obama doesn’t understand,” with “You’re right, I don’t understand how we invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.”
Moderator Tom Brokaw seemed far more concerned about the time taken to answer each question than whether the candidates actually answered the questions posed. The town hall format meant the questions selected by Brokaw had been emailed in by voters around the country, or actually came from members of the local Nashville, Tennessee audience.
Yet Brokaw let the candidates wander off into their pet talking points again and again, only chiding them for going over their one-minute limit. It made me think we need a debate monitor who actually holds the candidates to answering the questions put to them.
The worst question of the night was a ridiculous cold-war throwback about Russia being the “evil empire,” which put both candidates in a no-win position, and the best one was from an audience member, who asked, “What sacrifices will you ask the American people to make?”
Once again, McCain sounded muddled, talking about cutting spending on the military but then reiterating his point on a government spending-freeze except for the military, while Obama had ready-points that he’s been stumping since last winter: the need for doubling the Peace Corps and starting a new volunteer corps.
It was widely acknowledged that McCain, whose poll numbers are falling almost as fast as the Dow Jones average, needed a game-changer in this debate to pull his chances back up. He didn’t get one.
Instead, he managed to solidify the opinion of himself as out of touch and snippy, and to help make his opponent look that much more presidential by comparison.