Substance is typically irrelevant in political debates. With the debates this political season substance is especially irrelevant because of the financial crisis on Wall Street. It was hard not to smirk as both candidates discussed their plans for the economy.
Neither Obama nor McCain spoke credibly last night. Those who have capital are hording it and not about to extend credit so small businesses can make payroll or allow the people of Main Street to pay their mortgages. Credit will not be extended without a bailout and nobody can be sure that giving in to these 21st century robber barrons will solve the problem. Hence, when Obama promises that ninety five percent of the public will receive a tax cut under his administration he's blowing smoke up America's ass. And so is McCain with his "spending freeze" or asking Americans to believe that reforming earmarks will act as a growth stimulus for the economy.
So that means we have to evaluate style instead. Obama was doing just fine until about 10PM Eastern Standard Time. Then McCain the brawler asserted himself, interrupting Obama and getting under the younger man's skin. Ironic because Obama is supposed to be the one without emotion. I cringed when McCain effectively interrupted Obama and mocked his plans for talking with the psychotic president of Iran. McCain scored and one could read irritation on Obama's face because he knew it.
Obama fights fire with water. That is an admirable quality in a president and leader. It's one of the reasons I support his candidacy. Overall, I believe Obama held his own against McCain the brawler and appeared sure footed on the issue of foreign policy which conventional wisdom suggests is McCain's strength. Personally, I believe the record shows that McCain's record on foreign policy is disastrous but that's substance. We're assessing style here.
In future debates Obama must cease saying that "John is right." That phrase should be replaced with "John doesn't get it." If Obama wants to be more civil he can put it this way, "I regret to say that John doesn't get it." For variety he might say, "Once again John doesn't get it" and then make his points.
I suspect McCain came off as overly condescending for some with his constant refrain, "You don't understand." Perhaps Obama's reflexive "John is right" reassured some people that he's a leader looking for consensus and common ground. In my opinion however Obama needed to be more combative. This is easily fixed by dumping "John is right" into the rhetorical landfill.
The debate was a tie. Neither had a major gaffe or delivered a knockout punch. That's probably good for Obama. The next two debates will address subjects that Obama can speak to more comfortably. Next week Joe Biden will likely demonstrate more gravitas than the hapless Sarah Palin in the Vice Presidential debate. Hence this remains Obama's election to lose.
John McCain is a twentieth century man ill equipped to address our current challenges. Using the phrase "John doesn't get it" to preface his points would better help Obama drive that point home.