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Some Impressions of the First Obama-McCain Debate


I thought both Barack Obama and John McCain did well in tonight’s debate.  I went into the debate strongly favoring Obama, and nothing happened to change that.   As usual, Obama impressed me with his character, intelligence, and integrity.  But I was also impressed by McCain’s discipline despite my preference for Obama.

I half expected McCain to fall apart, given his performance during the economic crisis of the past week or so.  But he rose to the occasion and displayed admirable self-discipline.  That struck me as a sort of comeback for him.

An early poll by CBS News and Knowledge Networks suggests Obama won the debate:

Thirty-nine percent of uncommitted voters who watched the debate tonight thought Barack Obama was the winner. Twenty-four percent thought John McCain won. Thirty-seven percent saw it as a draw.

Forty-six percent of uncommitted voters said their opinion of Obama got better tonight. Thirty-two percent said their opinion of McCain got better.

Sixty-six percent of uncommitted voters think Obama would make the right decisions about the economy. Forty-two percent think McCain would.

Forty-eight percent of these voters think Obama would make the right decisions about Iraq. Fifty-six percent think McCain would.

Another early poll — this time by CNN and Opinion Research Corporation — found that 51% of respondents thought Obama won, while 38% thought McCain did.  But the party make-up of that poll was skewed towards Obama.

These early polls do not necessarily mean much.  In 2000, the early polls showed Al Gore the winner with most of the voters.  But after a couple days of hard hitting spin from the GOP, most of the voters had changed their mind and come to believe George Bush was the winner.  The same sea-change could happen here.

One thing that amused me during the debate happened when McCain “corrected” Obama on the minor point of whether the surge in Iraq was a strategic or tactical move. Obama said “tactical”; McCain said “strategic” and accused Obama of not understanding the difference between strategy and tactics.  Yet, it was actually McCain who screwed up — not Obama.

To be precise, the strategy in Iraq at the time was to bring about a political settlement to the war.  The tactic for achieving that strategy was to surge troops into the country to “create a breathing space” for the political settlement.  Interestingly, the tactic seems to have been a success: violence dramatically decreased, creating the desired “breathing space”.  Nevertheless, the strategy has not succeeded — there has been no political settlement and the country remains divided.

It struck me as funny that an old military man such as McCain would get the distinction wrong, while Obama, who has not served in the military, would get it right.  Was McCain having a “senior moment”? Or, was he just over-anxious to tar Obama as someone lacking in understanding?(*)

Another funny moment came when McCain went on and on for a bit about how much he supports veterans, and how dear they are to him.  It’s no secret McCain has voted against measures to benefit veterans about 80% of the time.

Barack Obama has been on my radar ever since sometime last year when George over at Decrepit Old Fool mentioned Obama made a speech in Detroit telling the car executives to get off their butts and build more fuel efficient cars.  The more I found out about him, the more I liked him.  He keeps doing little things I like.  Last night was no exception.  For instance: On a few occasions during the debate, he pointed out his agreement with McCain.  I thought that was gracious of him.  Moreover, it was in line with his habit of looking for commonality between himself and others. Any politician who is going to be an uniter, rather than a divider, had best have an instinct for finding commonalities.

Well, those are some of my impressions of the first debate between Obama and McCain.  I’m curious what you made of the debate and what about it sticks out for you?

(*) UPDATE: In the comments on this post, SJS takes me to task for my take on McCain’s grasp of strategy and, I think, SJS successfully demonstrates that McCain was not actually wrong in the distinction he drew between strategy and tactics.  I would maintain, however, that neither is Obama wrong in his own distinction between strategy and tactics.  Instead, it seems the two candidates are looking at the issue from different perspectives, and consequently, both are right, but each is talking pass the other.  See the comments on this matter here.


Also see on this blog, “Obama Won the Debate, But Who will Win the Spin?

12 thoughts on “Some Impressions of the First Obama-McCain Debate”

  1. Another point I didn’t like what McCain said was, he wanted to bring spending freeze for the financial crisis. Spend on nothing but defense. While Obama said, we have to carefully analyze and look for places to save and bring back the troops as soon as we can. McCain’s answer was blind, Obama’s was thought out.

    Somehow it looked to me that the candidates were speaking slow and soft. May be since it is just the first debate and they are saving energy for more to come.

    Another point: I was surprised to see McCain supporting Nuclear power while Obama is not. I thought Nuclear was a good energy option. If McCain plays the environment card like how Bush did in 2000 elections, could there be a surprise? Or is it going to be Economy the No. 1 factor this time and so people will not care as much for Environment?


  2. You obviously have no understanding of the difference between strategy and tactics either.

    To say that “the strategy in Iraq at the time was to bring about a political settlement to the war. ” is misleading. The goal of any modern war is to arrive at a political settlement since we no longer annihilate the populace of the conquered nations. You are simply confusing political strategy with military strategy, where political strategy is derived from the original notion used in the military.

    Strategy (from GK strategia — the duty of the military commander or general) is “the art of projecting and directing the larger military movements and operations of a campaign.” or “, a plan for successful action based on the rationality and interdependence of the moves of the opposing participants;” Something like a troop surge — the commitment of more forces in particular areas to weaken the opposition and gain ground — is a strategy.

    Tactics (from the Greek taktos, “order:) is a localized response to a condition on the battlefield, ordering the troops on a battlefield: “The art or science of deploying military or naval forces in order of battle, and of performing warlike evolutions and maneuvers.”

    Those are OED definitions, your dictionary might vary somewhat, but for you to suggest that McCain got it wrong shows your own ignorance, not his.


  3. @ SJS: I suspect you have made two mistakes here. First, of relying too much on a dictionary for your grasp of these concepts. Last I looked, the OED was neither Clausewitz nor Sun-Tzu. Moreover (second), so far as I understand it, neither strategy nor tactics need be absolute terms, but can be defined relative to each other. You are correct, however, in pointing out that I did not make explicit the specific political settlement the US is seeking in Iraq. Perhaps it was that which has confused you. Welcome to the blog!


  4. Thanks for the welcome, Paul. My concern is that McCain certainly has used the terms correctly and conventionally, and you are painting his usage as wrong. Furthermore, you then defined the terms to a rather idiosyncratic way to make your argument. I am glad that you defined your terms– nothing more frustrating than discussing something without clear (or even ball park) definitions. I suspect that if you take a broader and historical view of military history, you can be much more accepting of McCain’s meaning and intent when he used these words with much more precision and conventional agreement than you grant him.


  5. @ Dinesh: I agree that McCain often seemed to answer questions in a “blind” manner. I think he gave that appearance because (1) he relied too much on generalities, rather than specifics, and (2) he was attempting at times to shift the discussion from the question asked of him to the question he wanted to answer. For instance: When asked how he would handle the economic crisis, he responded that he would cut government spending! Even as clueless about economics as I can be at times, I’m pretty sure that cutting government spending has little or nothing to do with relieving the credit crunch. McCain, however, seems to have brought up cutting government spending so he could claim to have some experience — that’s not something he can claim to have with regards to solving the economic crisis.


  6. @ SJS: I think your concern with my post has some legitimacy. On reflection, I didn’t make clear that — so far as I can see — the core difference between McCain and Obama is that McCain seems to be distinguishing between strategy and tactics in the way a military leader might distinguish between them, while Obama seems to be distinguishing between them in the way a political leader might.

    That is, the two candidates have a difference in perspective. One is thinking of strategy and tactics like a general, the other like a president. For my part, I made no attempt to point that out in my post, and you are quite right to call me on it. McCain is not actually wrong in the distinction he draws between strategy and tactics, but then neither is Obama — they are instead both right, but talking pass each other.

    By the way, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to write an insightful critique of my post.


  7. I hope you don’t mind me posting on your blog, Paul…you offer some very interesting subjects and it’s hard to not jump in and have a say. 😀 I found you off earthlingblue’s blog.

    Two things stood out for me last night as quite hypocritical of McCain. He talked on and on about earmarks and government pork and how he’d put a stop to the practice yet he chose a running mate who’s state had the largest per capita ratio of earmarks in the nation. Does that make sense? How can we trust he’d rein in wild governmental spending when he chooses a partner who’s out of control?

    Also, he went on at length about his experience concerning every subject from energy to foreign policy yet he chose as a running mate a person who has virtually no experience? How can we trust that if he were to die while in office we’d be in good hands?


  8. McCain looked like a scared little puppy while up on the podium. He got scared on Wednesday when he tried to postpone the debate and then became so frightened on the day of the debate that he had to keep telling himself… “Don’t look at Obama. Don’t look at Obama.”

    How can you not even look at your opponent during a debate? And McCain thinks he can sit down with Ahmadinejad face to face? He can’t even look at his US opponent.

    The debate wasn’t even close. Obama won in every category – composure, confidence, delivery, logic, insight, you name it. I used to think that being a republican was a political affiliation…. now I know that it is a mentality…. a mentality founded on ignorance and powered by stubbornness.

    Open your eyes republicans. Don’t be so damn selfish and give this country what it needs.


  9. @ Ben: Welcome to the blog. You make a very good point that McCain’s body language might not fly so well in many of the situations he would be called upon as president to take charge of.

    However, I’m far from thinking all Republicans can be characterized as ignorant, stubborn or selfish. I will grant you though that if you only knew of the McCain campaign people and the conservative pundits, etc. you might get that impression in spades.


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