Friday, September 26, 2008

What Wins a Debate?

I'm writing this in the wake of the 1st presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, and after a rather long absence from posting. I'd like to hit one general election point before I get into the meat of this debate post. The economy.

There have been two elections so far. The first was a test of popularity, media-friendliness, and style. McCain won the opening salvo of that election by dropping Palin into our laps with a rush of mythological gobbledy-gook about a moose-hunting, reformer, hockey mom from Alaska who killed the "Bridge to Nowhere." He won by hitting Obama in the media early and often with nonsense about lipstick and Paris Hilton and so on. The long, and I mean looooooong, election campaign had lulled the American people into a daze of sorts, where the Clinton/Obama sparring had set a particular tone. That was the primary, and it seems the McCain people learned some lessons from the late primary season, when Clinton began to make up some ground on Barack with distractions and little things.

The problem with that thinking is that this is not the primary. This decides who the next president and vice president will be in the wake of a disastrous Bush administration. This is the final plunge into the deep end. The Palin pick began to unravel before our eyes as she stepped into the spotlight and Obama began to punch back hard. The meme switched. It changed to a focus on McCain's lies, distortions, and poor management/judgment. That seemed to stick just in time for part two of the election to begin. The economic crisis.

The bailout talks couldn't have come at a worse time for McCain. His trajectory was already on a downward path and the public saw Palin for what she is, a moron, and got back to the issues. The issues had Obama surging just in time for the issues to smack us all in the face with the fall of Wall Street. The seriousness of this choice hit home harder than ever and the primary tactics that had worked for a short time began to make McCain look amateurish and insubstantial on most important matters in the news. The debate seems to have been a push by all common wisdom, although some polls seem to suggest Obama came out ahead. This is the end of the beginning of the end for John Sidney McCain's bid. The end will come when Palin has to sit across from Biden and talk about the country.

Now to the debate. For the record, I think this was one of the highest quality debates in recent memory. It still wasn't a debate, but it was more substantial that any of the events we've witnessed in this election cycle and in the more recent history of the presidential elections. Lehrer did a fantastic job, although having the two men sit next to each other would have had them interacting directly rather than the podium set up that they employed. There was no incentive to confrontation standing 3 meters apart at lecterns. The major problem that I have with any debate analysis is that it covers what happened just after the broadcast. The test of the presidential debates is what people will remember 6 weeks, 6 months, 6 years, and a generation later. The impression matters more than the substance. The human memory maps out the events it witnesses in such a way that landmarks often dictate the territory more than precise accounts. This is an issue of General Semantics and Alfred Korzybski if anyone cares to look it up.

The map of these debates brings us the Reagan moment against Mondale, where the former Hollywood star defends the issue of age by flipping it on Mondale, saying that he won't hold his youth and inexperience against him. It's the Quayle/Bentsen moment..."You are no Jack Kennedy."

These moments are the long term mapping that ultimately decides who won. At this early juncture, thanks to YouTube and the progressive blogosphere the following moment seems to be the lone map moment in the debate tonight.

If that moment sticks, and the polls in the morning papers say Obama won, guess what? He won. As a keen political observer, I'd say that it was largely a tie on substance. Obama's overarching vision is more attractive and future-reaching than McCain's, but McCain articulated his adherence to the Reagan doctrine very well and made a good case for that wing of political thought. The substance was fairly clear, unambiguous, and the voters could choose based on their particular sense of what direction is best for the country. These debates, however, are not about substance, but mapping, and it's safe to say that Obama won.

More soon....