Update: I want to include an insight from keshmeshi in comments. I think that McCain did intend to snub Obama with his refusal to speak to him or look at him. However, because Obama kept looking steadily at McCain and calling him by his name, it ended up making Obama look dominant and McCain look afraid. Snubbing is a specific maneuver, and not appropriate to this situation. In this case, it looked like a game of chicken that Obama won without blinking.
Since I missed the debate Friday night due to rocknrollerz duty, I stayed in last night and watched a downloaded version on the computer. I’m joining the chorus calling Obama the clear winner, and as far as I know, we’re going into the Sunday talk-a-thon with the mainstream media mostly on the side of reality, though there’s plenty of people acting surprised that Obama isn’t stupid. Recently, in fact, a number of Villagers have come to the realization that McCain didn’t really love them, but was just using them, so they’ve grown critical of him and his audacious lying. But I have no illusions that they won’t slide back into carrying his water. If they continue to be honest about Obama’s win, good for them, but I’m not going to let myself get crushed if they start calling it for McCain once they realize that Obama’s pulling out way ahead.
Lehrer’s opening gambit of asking the same fucking question about the bailout many times over annoyed me. I’m sure he felt like he seemed “tough” because he was “catching” them unable to speak off-the-cuff, but in reality, he was putting both candidates in an untenable situation. Because there’s no way really to know what you’re going to do over 3 months from now, when things are happening so rapidly. And pretending otherwise would be bullshitting. Given the circumstances, I can’t blame either candidate for trotting out economic boilerplate speeches, because the only choices you have are to bullshit or highlight your priorities. Unsurprisingly, McCain was the one who finally bit, and started lying his ass off to get out of the question with his talk about a “spending freeze”, which has been the source of merriment.
I don’t know about the other networks, but CNN had a little meter at the bottom recording audience reactions to candidate answers, and from watching that thing, it was obvious that Obama was hitting it out of the ballpark. What amused me the most was that when McCain would try to dodge a question by going off on a sentimental speech, the audience really hated that. Obama didn’t get dinged nearly as hard, probably because his emotional appeals were brief and cutting. The bracelet exchange was a perfect example—McCain got into a long story about a dead soldier’s mother wanting to win Iraq so her son didn’t die in vain, and Obama countered with his bracelet from a mother who simply didn’t want any more mothers to be in her position. Audience: Fuck you, McCain. Good point, Obama. At least according to the meter. McCain was, after all, making the “throw good money after bad” argument, which probably sounds even more hollow during an economic crisis when people are really learning to cut their losses.
There were a couple of times that I was reminded that McCain, while awful, might not be as complete a trainwreck as Bush, especially when McCain mocked Bush’s praise for Putin’s soul. During the whole discussion of the Russian conflict, in fact, McCain came across as Not Awful, and it wasn’t just that he was talking sense. It was also that he wasn’t, possibly for the only time during the debate, leaning on a bunch of lies, Free to be honest and direct, he showed a glimmer of Not Awfulness. But soon that was over.
Now, onto the startling difference between the two candidates’ demeanor, with Obama coming across as cool and confident, and McCain seeming bitter. And yes, I watched it after reading about how McCain didn’t seem to look at Obama once, and he really didn’t. Maybe towards him a little, but then backed off, unwilling to meet his eyes. I don’t think his behavior was an accident or just a result of his own personal issues with Obama. I think it was a conscious decision by his campaign. It was an attempt to reinforce the overall message, which is, “Can you believe they let this guy run for President?”, a campaign strategy that is clever insofar as it’s race-baiting for people who are hungry for that, but can also be read in a more mundane way, with McCain pretending to be an incumbent facing a two-bit challenger. Everything that McCain has done has been to send the loud signal that he thinks so little of Obama that he’s offended that Obama has been allowed to get this far, as if there should have been some gatekeeper keeping him and the rabble out. The attempt to avoid the debate was McCain’s way of saying, “Appearing in public with that pipsqueak is a waste of my time.” McCain’s well-rehearsed attack lines about how Obama doesn’t understand or is naive (read: he’s stupid) fed the same narrative. The insta-ad is part of the same story, that it’s just appalling that Obama has gotten this far. As the ad example at the link shows, McCain is taking Clinton’s narrative and amplifying it—this office is my birthright, and this pipsqueak is out of line.
I’m sure that this tactic sells really well to people who come to campaign events, who are already up to their necks in right wing bitterness about a thwarted sense of entitlement, the sort of people who rant about the evils of affirmative action non-stop even if they’ve never seen nor experienced a bona fide example of that policy in action. But to a larger audience, it was tone deaf. The idea that Obama is an interloper is easily disproved by his ease in a situation that 99.9% of us would be nervous in, and his intelligence disproves the insinuations about his mental capacities. The little audience meter was fascinating for this reason. It really seemed that the more McCain hammered at Obama for being naive or stupid or inexperienced, the audience turned on McCain. We could expect that from Democrats, of course, but independents were right there with them, with only Republicans still hanging in for McCain, as could be expected.