Just for my own amusement, I'm going to break down the actual substance of last night's debate from the transcript, and try to decide who (if anybody) 'won' each of the eight sections: the bailout; the post-bailout economy; future spending; Iraq; Afghanistan; Iran; Russia; and terrorism.
I'm essentially going to score in three areas: substance, aggressiveness, and gaffes. Substance will be a reflection of who actually said anything substantial (whether I agree with it or not). Aggressiveness will be a reflection of who 'controlled' the debate at that point, who kept their opponent on the defensive, and who got in shots that actually drew blood. Gaffes will be a reflection of who said something stupid. I'll be using the traditional boxing scoring of a '10 point must' system; the winner gets 10, the loser gets 9 unless there was a knockout, in which case the loser might get 8 or even 7. A draw would be 10-10.
Keep in mind that my initial reaction to the debate as a whole was that Obama won, mainly due to McCain's awful tone and body language, but also due to the fact that Obama had the most memorable phrases and moments.
Obama 10 - 10 - 10
McCain 10 - 9 - 9
A clear win for Obama. Neither one said much of anything about the bailout itself, simply because until there's a deal in place there isn't much of anything to talk about, although McCain danced a fine line by appearing to commit to voting yes before he even knows the details of what he'd be voting for:
LEHRER: Are you going to vote for the plan, Senator McCain?
MCCAIN: I -- I hope so. And I...
LEHRER: As a United States senator...
LEHRER: ... you're going to vote for the plan?
On the subject of regulation both stuck to their ideological guns, with Obama attacking the core Reaganomic idea that any regulation is bad, while McCain called for consolidation of existing regulatory bodies and strict enforcement of existing regulations, rather than the addition of new ones. McCain's intro was also unfocused, as his "end of the beginning" point didn't really make much sense and he jumped from the bailout to jobs and oil dependence, but the sum total wasn't enough to give Obama a clear edge in substance.
In aggressiveness Obama scored repeatedly. McCain seemed to be playing follow-the-leader, echoing Obama's points about the effect of the bailout on Main Street, and even giving Obama implicit credit for recognizing that there had been a problem looming:
OBAMA: Two years ago, I warned that, because of the subprime lending mess, because of the lax regulation, that we were potentially going to have a problem and tried to stop some of the abuses in mortgages that were taking place at the time.
Last year, I wrote to the secretary of the Treasury to make sure that he understood the magnitude of this problem and to call on him to bring all the stakeholders together to try to deal with it.
MCCAIN: But -- but let me -- let me point out, I also warned about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and warned about corporate greed and excess, and CEO pay, and all that. A lot of us saw this train wreck coming.
Obama did give McCain credit for the need for accountability, but was able to spin it into a broader point and then into a reference to McCain's "fundamentals of the economy" gaffe, to which McCain had no answer.
In terms of gaffes, McCain's Eisenhower letter reference not only came completely out of the blue, but as diarists arodb and William S Martin pointed out last night it was wrong. Eisenhower never wrote a resignation letter, merely a letter accepting responsibility.
Bailout score: Obama 30, McCain 28
McCain: 10 - 9 - 10
Obama: 10 - 10 - 10
Lehrer's lead question was vague enough to allow both candidates to stake out the turf on which they wanted to fight: McCain claimed earmarks and wasteful spending, while Obama claimed taxes, specifically corporate taxes vs. individual taxes. Both stated their positions fairly clearly.
The aggressiveness edge went to Obama. The two ended up talking about Obama's turf (taxes) more than McCain's, and while both candidates attacked the other Obama did well answering McCain's charges with specifics, while McCain again, as often as not, had no answer at all. In general this section seemed to be fought on Obama's terms, not McCain's.
Neither candidate gaffed.
Post-bailout economy score: Obama 30, McCain 29
Obama: 9 - 9 - 10
McCain: 10 - 10 - 10
Obama's seeming reluctance to give any programs up hurt him here, as was his inability to clearly frame his 'priorities' argument. Meanwhile McCain's "spending freeze" gambit (the one time McCain genuinely seemed mavericky all night) and attack on foreign aid made him appear to be willing to consider a wider range of options to deal with budget shortfalls post-bailout, although his attack on defense overruns seemed to contradict his later call for a defense exception to his theoretical spending freeze. Nonetheless it was a clear win in the substance category for McCain.
McCain was also the more aggressive candidate. Obama was defensive throughout, not just with McCain but even with Lehrer, and while his "hatchet where you need a scalpel" rejoinder was (cough) sharp, his late attempt to tie McCain to the Bush administration's "orgy of spending" was a bit weak and too little, too late.
McCain's second "Miss Congeniality" reference in about 10 minutes likely induced a nationwide bout of eye-rolling, but it wasn't bad enough to qualify as a gaffe.
Future spending score: McCain 30, Obama 28
McCain: 9 - 8 - 9
Obama: 10 - 10 - 10
McCain got absolutely killed here. From his claim of having realized we needed more troops in Iraq before there was even a plan in place to do something with them:
MCCAIN: I went to Iraq in 2003 and came back and said, we've got to change this strategy. This strategy requires additional troops, it requires a fundamental change in strategy and I fought for it. And finally, we came up with a great general and a strategy that has succeeded.
to his attempt to turn the disagreements over Iraq into a semantic debate, of all things, McCain really offered no response to the question, "What did you learn from Iraq?" other than perhaps "Hire better generals." He also suggested that the solution in Afghanistan was another surge, as though the countries and situations were identical. Obama, meanwhile, not only expressed what he thoughts the 'lessons of Iraq' were, he indicated he was ready to apply those lessons elsewhere. The way Lehrer framed the questioned played more to Professor Obama's strengths than John "Act First, Think Later" McCain's, but Obama still took advantage.
As for aggressiveness, Obama scored one of the few real knockdowns of the night with his triple wrong attack:
OBAMA: And so John likes -- John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong.
That one hurt McCain enough that he lashed back with his silly "doesn't understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy" counterpunch, the first of the coming wave of attempts to paint Obama as naive and out of his depth, then go hide behind an anecdote about the troops. He also rattled off a few smaller attacks, all of which were effectively dismissed and flipped by Obama.
Given the real-time reactions of independents and undecideds to McCain's descent into negativity and condescension, it's hard not to see the litany of "doesn't understand"'s as a gaffe on the level of Gore's sigh.
Iraq score: Obama 30, McCain 26
Obama: 10 - 10 - 10
McCain: 9 - 9 - 8
Again McCain forgoes saying much of anything of substance, in fact ignoring Lehrer's question of whether to send more troops into Afghanistan to attack Obama's positions on Pakistan. Obama, meanwhile, offers a concise three point plan of what to do in Afghanistan once we increase our presence, not only answering the question but expanding on it:
OBAMA: So here's what we have to do comprehensively, though. It's not just more troops.
We have to press the Afghan government to make certain that they are actually working for their people. And I've said this to President Karzai.
No. 2, we've got to deal with a growing poppy trade that has exploded over the last several years.
No. 3, we've got to deal with Pakistan, because al Qaeda and the Taliban have safe havens in Pakistan, across the border in the northwest regions, and although, you know, under George Bush, with the support of Senator McCain, we've been giving them $10 billion over the last seven years, they have not done what needs to be done to get rid of those safe havens.
And until we do, Americans here at home are not going to be safe.
It was moments like these that allowed Obama to establish himself as in the same league as McCain on foreign policy, and if the debate ends up being a watershed, Kennedy in '60/Reagan in '80 event that convinced voters they're OK with the idea of Obama as Commander-in-Chief, McCain's decision to go all offense will be a big reason why it had that status. McCain did eventually display his knowledge of the region, but by continuously framing it in the context of attacks on Obama he blunted its impact.
As for those attacks, Obama again was able to flip them successfully, although his counterattack played more to pundits than a general audience:
MCCAIN: So it's not just the addition of troops that matters. It's a strategy that will succeed. And Pakistan is a very important element in this. And I know how to work with him. And I guarantee you I would not publicly state that I'm going to attack them.
OBAMA: Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan. Here's what I said... and if John wants to disagree with this, he can let me know, that, if the United States has al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out.
Now, I think that's the right strategy; I think that's the right policy.
And, John, I -- you're absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But, you know, coming from you, who, you know, in the past has threatened extinction for North Korea and, you know, sung songs about bombing Iran, I don't know, you know, how credible that is.
Obama also had his best counterpunch of the entire debate in this segment, his "I've got a bracelet too" moment. McCain was clearly caught off-guard by it, and had no response other than to trot back out the "Obama's delinquent as a subcommittee chair" attack that Obama had already answered previously in the debate.
This might have been McCain's worst segment in terms of gaffes as well. His mangled the name of the new Pakistani president. He mistakenly recalled a vote to keep Marines in Lebanon as a vote to send Marines into Lebanon, and thereby seemed to claim that he'd opposed Reagan's decision to send them in before he was even in congress. And he called the democratic government overthrown in Musharraf's coup a "failed regime", a gaffe that reinforced one of Obama's attacks against him:
OBAMA: And the problem, John, with the strategy that's been pursued was that, for 10 years, we coddled Musharraf, we alienated the Pakistani population, because we were anti-democratic. We had a 20th-century mindset that basically said, "Well, you know, he may be a dictator, but he's our dictator."
And as a consequence, we lost legitimacy in Pakistan.
Fromn a wonk perspective, if not a broader one, this was Obama's most decisive win of the night.
Afghanistan score: Obama 30, McCain 26
McCain: 10 - 10 - 10
Obama: 10 - 9 - 10
McCain returned to offering some substance along with his attacks here, with his "league of democracies" proposal, which while vague was at least something. Obama, in turn, pointed out that Iran's new regional strength is a direct result of the disappearance of their previous counterweight, Iraq, from the scene. Neither gained much of an advantage here.
McCain also regained the initiative in his attacks, although they eventually bogged down in another semantic debate over 'preconditions' versus 'preparations'. Obama also misfired with his Spain attack, a reference that neither played well in the pundisphere (the consensus being that McCain didn't really mistrust Zapatero, but simply blustered his way past not immediately recognizing his name) nor among the general population (who likely had little clue what he was talking about). Of course McCain whiffed for similar reasons with his "I don't even have a seal yet" counterpunch, but on the whole he kept Obama on the defensive when it came to talks with Iran.
McCain did stumble over 'Ahmadinejad', but not badly enough to be a true gaffe.
Iran score: McCain 30, Obama 29
Obama: 9 - 10 - 10
McCain: 10 - 10 - 10
This was the most schizophrenic segment of the night. On the one hand, you had McCain sounding more authoritative than he had all night, moving from the Georgian/South Ossetia issue to Caspian Sea pipeline concerns to the internal politics of the Ukraine without missing a beat. Obama wasn't outclassed in the substance department, and in fact made a strong point later when he tied Russia's new aggression to petrodollars and America's oil dependence, but McCain, for arguably only the second time all night (the first being his display of knowledge of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border) actually sounded secure and confident in his experience.
On the other hand, in some ways McCain ended up playing right into Obama's hands. Compare these two statements:
OBAMA: It is absolutely important that we have a unified alliance and that we explain to the Russians that you cannot be a 21st-century superpower, or power, and act like a 20th-century dictatorship.
And we also have to affirm all the fledgling democracies in that region, you know, the Estonians, the Lithuanians, the Latvians, the Poles, the Czechs, that we are, in fact, going to be supportive and in solidarity with them in their efforts. They are members of NATO.
And to countries like Georgia and the Ukraine, I think we have to insist that they are free to join NATO if they meet the requirements, and they should have a membership action plan immediately to start bringing them in.
Now, we also can't return to a Cold War posture with respect to Russia.
MCCAIN: Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn't understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia. And Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government.
I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes, and I saw three letters, a "K," a "G," and a "B." And their aggression in Georgia is not acceptable behavior.
I don't believe we're going to go back to the Cold War. I am sure that that will not happen.
Obama explicitly talks about a 21st century approach, about not viewing Russia through a Cold War lens, and while McCain says he agrees (although not in so many words) he still describes Putin in Cold War terms. It's subtle, but it adds to Obama's narrative of McCain being yesterday's man, a narrative that played out beneath the surface all through the debate as McCain made continual reference to the eras of Reagan, Eisenhower, Nixon. Experience is one thing; being stuck in the past is quite another, and Obama, very skillfully, planted those seeds in the minds of the audience Friday night.
While the Russia debate itself was relatively free of overt attacks, and probably the high point of the whole debate, the spinoff discussion of alternate energy featured little but shots and countershots, although none of them particularly stuck. The section was also gaffe-free.
Russia score: McCain 30, Obama 29
McCain: 10 - 9 - 10
Obama: 10 - 10 - 10
McCain came out very strongly with his statement that he wanted to end the practice of torture, although Obama was equally strong in tying that practice to our loss of standing in the world. Neither one really had an edge in substantive matters.
McCain remained more aggressive, but in the final round his attacks fizzled. He jumped from SDI to Iraq as a total no sequiter, opening the door for an Obama counterpunch that the Bush-McCain focus on Iraq had left bin Laden at large and had failed to weaken al Qaeda. He also displayed a weakness that Obama may well exploit in later debates. Obama stuck in a small needle when he mentioned the lack of adequate funds for veteran care, and thereafter McCain wouldn't shut up about how much he loved the veterans:
MCCAIN: As far as our other issues that he brought up are concerned, I know the veterans. I know them well. And I know that they know that I'll take care of them. And I've been proud of their support and their recognition of my service to the veterans.
And I love them. And I'll take care of them. And they know that I'll take care of them. And that's going to be my job.
Jim, when I came home from prison, I saw our veterans being very badly treated, and it made me sad. And I embarked on an effort to resolve the POW-MIA issue, which we did in a bipartisan fashion, and then I worked on normalization of relations between our two countries so that our veterans could come all the way home.
One well-placed Webb GI Bill dig from Obama in a later debate could be enough to set McCain off and give Democrats the public meltdown they've been hoping for.
Terrorism score: Obama 30, McCain 29
Final score: five rounds to three for Obama, 236-228