Some notes on the second presidential debate

I wasn’t that impressed or thrilled by the first presidential debate — I honestly thought it was a draw. Even though I find myself in a rare consonance with many things Obama believes, I thought he was stiff and mysteriously unconvincing, and while I disagree with almost everything John McCain says, I thought he presented himself well, especially considering all the hysterical drama he had tried to manufacture surrounding the stats

This was different.

This was perhaps the most thrilling presidential debate I’ve ever watched. One would have to beme, I guess, to get that feeling — a lot of other folk seem to be saying that they found the proceedings dry and undramatic — but I found, again and again, so many times I lost track of the count, that Obama somehow didn’t just "answer the question," rather he answered it using almost the same words I would have. This means either I’m a political genius or else Obama is as dumb as I am, both of which seem, to say the least, unlikely, but it’s a rare thing indeed when I watch a presidential debate and the candidate actually states his position on an issue and I find myself thinking "Hey, that’s the way I see that issue, too!" Al Gore, for instance, eventually convinced me that he was a good — even a great — man, but during his debates with George W. Bush, he was overly wonkish, petulant and unpleasant — the kind of know-it-all all who looks down on everyone else.

Obama’s comment about the recent AIG corporate retreat, spending a half a million dollars of taxpayers’ money on themselves less than two weeks after their bailout, calling for the firing of the executives involved in the decision, his recall of JFK’s moon project to summon the notion of a similar endeavor to give the US energy independence, his criticism of the Bush post-9/11 "Go Out and Shop" doctrine, the way he turned the Fannie and Freddie controversy back on McCain, his observation that the behavior on Wall Street is set by the example set by behavior of Washington, his insistence that new energy will create new jobs and a new economy, his observation that it’s pointless work on climate change while ignoring our dependence on oil, and how the current economic crisis presents both frightening realities and vital opportunities to re-order our priorities, all of these are things I, literally, could have written for him to say. None of them are new ideas, obviously, but as I say, in the previous debate I watched him like I’ve watched dozens of other presidential candidates, thinking "I guess this guy knows what he’s talking about, but he apparently lives in a very different world than I do."

McCain, on the other hand, I thought failed on every level he could have. He looked tired, even winded at times, the creepy crooked-smile/Penguin-laugh combo made a horrifying appearance, his "jokes" (if that’s what they were) were strained and mean-spirited (I’ve seen the guy guest on SNL and The Daily Show, I know he can be funnier than he was tonight), he seemed petty, small-minded, startlingly smug and snide. He would wind himself up with what he was sure was a real zinger, and instead of a knockout punch he would deliver a sniggering, contemptuous, smirking wisecrack.  He seemed not only to dislike his opponent but the audience as well — his repeated "My Friends" trope and his generally condescending attitude, off-putting enough when directed toward Obama, was even more so when directed toward actual voters.  And this "town hall" setting was supposed to be his strong suit — instead, with the TV cameras looking down on him, he looked small, lost and crotchety. He would do the typical McCain thing of starting his answer by saying something about wanting to deliver some "straight talk" or some other brand-name catch phrase, and then he would bluster or cheerlead instead of connecting with the audience’s concerns. When he tried to outline an earnest attempt at an economic plan, he sounded both unconvincing and unconvinced. Obama’s plan may or may not work, but I didn’t think McCain even believed, or even understood, what he was saying.

I was startled the other night when Sarah Palin said that America wanted to see some "new blood" in Washington, wanted to see the old politicians swept aside, and I was startled again tonight when John McCain saidthat Americans want to see a "firm hand on the tiller."  Both statements seem to be clear endorsements of their opponent.

I will have more to say about Obama in the coming weeks in what I firmly believe will be the most important presidential race of our times (well, I guess 2000 was actually the most important, and we saw what happened there), and I apologize to my readers who patiently await my analysis of The Blob.


53 Responses to “Some notes on the second presidential debate”
  1. quitwriting says:

    No trouble. I’m still snarking over McCain calling him “That one” and the snub handshake (where Obama went for the shake and McCain foisted Obama off on Cindy and then left as quick as he could). Obama sticking around for 30+ minutes after the debate struck a very Bill Clinton tone, which I want to see more of in the coming days. I don’t want to see, BY ANY stretch, Bill Clinton II. But I want people to see that he can remind us of when we once had a great President and that we can have that again.

    Many conservatives I know are already pretty much calling this one for McCain, but it would be wise of the Democrats not to let up even now.

    My prediction of a 65% win for Obama may yet come true.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: …

        For that brief moment, when he grimaces sarcastically, I’m reminded of Heath Ledger as the Joker.

        Just for yuks, imagine that barely controlled rage sitting across the table from North Korea. Now imagine Sarah Palin winking her way through negotiations.

        I would have loved to hear substantive policy from McCain last night. But aside from an admirably solid answer on Russia, he mostly delivered lame, feeble proposals and cheap shots on Obama.

        — N.A.

        • quitwriting says:

          Re: …

          Nah, McCain’s not as stable as Joker. If you’ll recall, Joker originally agreed to kill Batman but changed his mind when he realized a living Batman was more fun.

          McCain would never change his mind. He’s a hip-shooter.

      • quitwriting says:

        Re: …

        I know. It’s fucked up. Even if it wasn’t meant in a racist way, just the sheer level of venom the man is showing: the sheer contempt. I don’t want a President who gets pissy over some young upstart. 90% of the world leaders are young upstarts anymore, compared to McCain.

        There are ten leaders older than McCain and all of them are in the Africa / Middle East / Lower Asia area. So maybe he’d be the best for the job just due to being able to relate to them on a “In my day, kids weren’t so damned uppity” kind of level.

        However it’d probably be more of a Grumpy Old Men dynamic instead:

  2. johnnycrulez says:

    McCain’s “did we hear the number for the fine” joke seemed like something a bad villain would say.

    I’m pumped beyond words that you are reviewing a movie I suggested.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I agree with you completely. I had two friends over, and we were all riveted.

    McCain seemed pained and unnatural, and he didn’t seem to pay much attention when Obama spoke. Obama, on the other hand, was both focused and relaxed, confident yet personable. I thought his invocation of JFK pitch-perfect (usually those sorts of self-comparisons from politicians come off as hubris). On the issues, of course, I agree with Obama, so I’m sure that clouds my view.

    The big relief, of course, was to listen to a debate that was actually a debate, and it made last week’s VP pageant seem all the more farcical. And all the more frightening.


    • Anonymous says:


      I meant to add that McCain’s repetition of “my friends” made me think of Chigurh. Not good.

      • Todd says:

        Re: P.S.

        If McCain had come onstage with a cattlegun he might have done better — but he’d have to get close enough to Obama to use it, and that, my friends, is one thing McCain is unwilling to do.

      • mitejen says:

        Re: P.S.

        Oh God, you’re right!

        He did kind of remind me of Chigurh!

    • viktor_haag says:

      I’ve been very surprised that the Democrats haven’t, in fact, invoked the legacy of JFK more in Obama’s campaign. To my mind it would be a powerful defense against the “no experience, green behind the ears” saw that McCain’s camp has been pitching across the isle. I think the space-race nod last night was the first reasonably overt invocation that I can remember seeing, but I haven’t been as riveted to the ongoing race as others obviously are…

      • Todd says:

        During the last debate, Obama kept saying “John is right when he says…” and “I agree with John when he says…” The GOP picked up on this as evidence that Obama thought that McCain was a better choice than himself, but I immediately spotted it for a debating trick that Lincoln used with Stephen Douglas — to put the audience at ease, you compliment your opponent and give him all the credibility you can, and that puts your opponent at ease, and then you say “But here’s where we differ,” and you stick in the knife. And then there’s the long-standing question of Obama’s “experience,” when he not only has the same length of legislative experience as Lincoln did, he’s been a much more successful legislator than Lincoln ever was before his presidency.

        So all this time, Obama not comparing himself to Kennedy didn’t strike me as odd, because I thought he was comparing himself to Lincoln, which is, after all, shooting a little higher (so to speak).

        After the debate though, when he was greeting folks with Michelle, my wife and I both got the JFK/Jackie O vibe at the same time, realizing that we were watching history unfold.

        • pirateman says:

          Yes! Exactly! The Lincoln comparison is much more apt than Kennedy (excellent joke, by the way).

          And someone might have already said this, but the fact that this was “McCain’s Format” really hurt him here – I think he probably IS better at this format, but at this point, trailing in the polls, he needed this to be the debate where he really went after and attacked Obama… And that’s impossible to do in such an intimate setting without coming off like a raging dick. So the timing of the format of this debate really couldn’t have been worse for him. There’s no way, in my mind, that he can shift the momentum of the election with just this last debate – because next week any attacks will just come of as more desperate than anything else.

      • malsperanza says:

        Just a guess: possibly there are too many voters under 40, for whom JFK is mythic; the claim of a connection might be seen as presumptuous. (“I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine…”)

        • quitwriting says:

          And that just makes me ache over the death of JFK, Jr. all over again. I mean, RFK, Jr. is still around… but we’ll never see him front and center.

          • Anonymous says:

            JFK Jr. was no JFK, initials aside.

            • quitwriting says:

              No, he was JFK, Jr., a man of his own times. The man had charisma and personality to spare and a solid understanding of politics in America. Not a lot of attention was given to that, since he was treated more as a celebrity than anything else. But if you looked, he had the makings of an outrageously good politician.

              Same with RFK, Jr. But he’s already said he wants nothing to do with politics. And Caroline Kennedy, as well (although she’s not absent from the scene entirely).

        • Todd says:

          Plus there’s the whole assassination thing that I’d just as soon not remind folks about.

          • malsperanza says:

            Yeah, I hear that a lot from Obama supporters when I’m canvassing. The lingering memory of having had all our heroes murdered one after another, maybe, or else it’s a way of verbalizing the general anxiety about submerged racism in this election.

            But be of good cheer: the more likely target right now is W. 45 million people in the US own guns, and I figure most of them are pricing telescopic sights while they watch their 401(k)s plummet.

  4. McCain’s voice and cadence is starting to creep me out, but the things he says no longer seem to have any meaning or impact. It’s all abstract nonsense and circular attacks.

    fuckin’ obama better fuckin’ win

  5. mitejen says:

    We listened to parts of it on NPR and we were surprised at how stunted, out of breath and rambling McCain was–especially when it was brought up that the format was something he’d suggested, the ‘Town Hall’ format.

    I saw some of it on CNN when I was at the gym, but the sound was off. McCain was hunched, tense-looking (probably due to his shoulder injury but more because he was uncomfortable) and Obama was totally in his element, roaming and talking and looking really polished and capable. He walks, talks, looks and sounds like a President.

    I did hear the question on Healthcare, and McCain’s answer simply made no sense, nor did his attempt to scare people with the ‘Obama’s going to fine you if you don’t get his health care! BOO!’ point, which Obama smoothed over like good frosting.

  6. jey says:

    “…and realize you’re sending America’s most precious asset, American blood, into harm’s way.”

    My friends, he’s a vampire!

    • Anonymous says:

      “My friends, I need that blood to sustain me. Precious, life-giving blood. I understand Vice-President Cheney also enjoys it.”

      When McCain walked out to give his speech back at the convention, all I could think was, “Well, it was nice of him to get freshly embalmed for the occasion.”

      — N.A.

    • Todd says:

      That phrase got my daughter Kit’s attention too. She was playing with some stuffed animals, and when McCain said “American blood” she looked up like someone had fired a gun. “American blood?!” she squeaked, like he might be coming in the door with an axe and a bucket.

      • quitwriting says:

        It really was one of the most fumblingly clumsy lines, ever. He was about to call American Soldiers our most precious asset. We’re America. We have no ONE “most” precious asset. All of our assets are precious.

  7. foryourfyi says:


    Sen. McCain’s bizarre moving about the floor made me wince. He looked a lot like a component in a glockenspiel. Turn to the left, pause, talkm turn to the right, three paces forward, pause, talk, turn to the right, three paces forward, pause, turn to the left, pause…

  8. capthek says:

    spot on summary.

  9. obijuan says:

    There were quite a few moments where Obama said the things I was thinking as well. However, I think he let the “what don’t you know” question sail by.

    While I thought the joke about asking Michelle for a list of things he doesn’t know was a good start, I was hoping he’d turn it around and make it about leadership. Good leaders don’t have to be experts about every subject. They start with a firm working knowledge, surround themselves with smart people who have a range of opinions, then make intelligent decisions based on input from those people.

    I feel like Obama will be the kind of leader who will listen to the voices of people who have dedicated their lives to foreign policy, education, healthcare, economics, and so on, even if he disagrees with them. He’s a critical thinker, which is something that has been in short supply in Washington over the past decade.

    The man is an intellectual heavyweight, and while I don’t agree with all of his policy ideas, I want someone who is smarter than I am in the White House.

    • quitwriting says:

      I want someone who’s smarter than I am in the White House, but Stephen Hawking is unwilling. Ba-dum-tish!

      Hahaha. At least I’m much brighter than the current guy.

      Can we get an amendment to the Constitution that states a minimum IQ level along with the other criteria? I realize we’re a country founded by a bunch of farmers, but they were businessmen farmers like we have today, not maw and paw dirt farmers like the crop-sharing days.

    • Todd says:

      I’m looking forward to a JFK-style “best and brightest” cabinet, where the person in charge of an office is actually one of the smartest and most qualified in their field, instead of being some guy who was friends with the president when they were in college, and whose qualifications are nothing more than absolute loyalty in the face of mediocrity and a dedication to destroying the office they were appointed to leading.

    • I also thought Obama really missed the boat on the “what don’t you know” question. I winced. He could have turned it around right down to the last sentence of his unrelated talking point. “When I run into problems I don’t know how to solve, I’ll ask the American people. They’re smart as hell and they’ve solved problems that would have made other nations crap their pants. That’s why it’s so important that we keep providing opportunities for people to get the jobs and the educations they want, so America can find solutions to the world’s biggest problems and not have to rely on one smart guy in the White House.”

  10. stormwyvern says:

    Poor little A.I. There there now. Don’t cry. I still….oh wait. I never actually saw you. My husband did, but he actually didn’t think you were very good. So, um….

    There there. There there.

    • Todd says:

      Don’t worry, I’m getting to A.I., and The Terminal, and so forth. I just thought a reference to The Blob was funnier in the context of describing a presidential debate. Although I guess referencing a movie called Artificial Intelligence is appropriate too.

  11. curt_holman says:

    The Dark Bailout

    Forgive me if this one’s been discussed/posted here already:

  12. -I’m surprised more people aren’t as annoyed as I am at Tom Brokaw, who’s blatantly for McCain, and was consistently getting on Obama much more than on McCain about following the rules of the debate. Every time Brokaw started interrupting I wanted to kick my tv. It’s a damned presidential debate, god forbid you get the hell out of the way and let the candidates actually reveal themselves a bit.

    -I don’t know if I found this second one all that exciting, but it was definitely a stronger more aggressive showing from Obama, and I think that was intentional. I think his campaign’s outright goal for the first debate was just to play it cool and reserved, and it worked, a lot of polls showed that undecideds (a woeful lot of idiots) for the first time recognized Obama as presidential and capable. I think that debate was the foot in the door, and the second debate was the kick in McCain’s face. Next up he’ll be grinding McCain’s windpipe under his heel. I hope.

    -I think the main reason why you’re appreciating Obama’s answers so much is because of something that’s virtually unheard of in our politics: he’s being honest and forthright. There’s no obfuscation, no bullshit, no spin. It’s damned refreshing innit?

    -I find this clip very illuminating: