THE BLOG
10/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Debate #1: The Knockout that Wasn't. What Obama Needs to Do Next Time.

There was that moment in last Friday night's presidential debate when Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, said "I've got a bracelet too." I cringed. He was responding to Sen. John McCain's grandstanding by describing the soldier's bracelet he was wearing. It was an insincere, awkward moment of political posturing for Obama, who appeared to have difficulty even remembering the soldier's name.

I've spent much of the last several months listening to fellow democrats--many of them friends--predict a big debate win for Obama. More fantasy than reality, they expected several defining moments that would clearly demonstrate to voters that Obama was better suited to be President of the United States. "McCain will have an embarrassing 'senior' moment," they said. "McCain will lose his cool and snap at some point," they assured me. "On economic issues Obama will destroy him," they bragged. "It'll be just like Kennedy-Nixon," they confidently predicted, "with the cool, handsome charming young guy versus the stiff, sweaty old guy." And lastly, "Obama's gonna knock him out!"

To be sure, there was no knockout. And a knockout was what Obama needed. As the comedian Chris Rock said, "You can't beat white people... you can only knock them out!... Was McCain standing? He probably won then." At best, it was a tie. And as the underdog in many ways, Obama needed to do much more than simply hold his own. The meltdown on Wall Street gave him a huge opportunity, which he blew, to demonstrate solid leadership in times of crisis, and to make his much-needed visceral connection with voters in that same Bill Clinton "I feel your pain" way. Instead, what we essentially got was more of the same dispassionate, professorial lecturer whose measured, stilted delivery unfortunately lacked the electricity of his stadium speeches. He literally put me to sleep at one point. He was the wonkish Harvard debate-team guy to McCain's sound byte-driven street fighter.

Neither candidate came even close to capitalizing on the Wall Street crisis, but no one expected McCain to. This was supposed to be Obama's strength. He could've and should've hit a grand slam on this one. The nation is struggling with a financial disaster which billionaire investor Warren Buffett calls an "economic Pearl Harbor." Americans are fearing for their jobs, their homes and their savings, and where it mattered, Obama was impotent. Worse, on the economy, it was McCain who surprisingly held his own. It's astounding to me how, in the middle of the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression, the focus was on earmarks and wasteful spending. Could they have been any more out of touch? Moderator Jim Lehrer had to ask four times for specifics on what each candidate would do in handling the current economic crisis if they became president, and how the proposed $700-billion bailout measure might hamstring them budget-wise once in office. And still they did not answer.

One of the biggest blown opportunities for Obama was in not addressing McCain directly, despite several pleas from Lehrer to go mano-a-mano. It was actually quite bizarre how both candidates ignored Lehrer's repeated suggestions and simply kept talking at him instead of each other. Here's where Obama could've scored big points by directly challenging his opponent on the economy, the Wall Street mess and his judgements on Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe had he done this, and done so successfully, he might've pushed McCain into one of those senior moments, or perhaps caused him to snap, as so many Democrats had hoped. But rather than challenge his opponent and put him on the spot, he seemed to "absolutely agree" with him way too many times. This provided lots of fodder not only for the conservative talk shows, but for the McCain campaign itself, which immediately rolled out a new ad featuring all of Obama's "I absolutely agree with John" softballs.

When it came to foreign policy, Obama missed several opportunities as well. He allowed McCain to claim "we're winning in Iraq" while also embarrassing him on his past statements about holding direct talks with Iran and other enemies of the U.S. He was on the defensive, letting the more aggressive McCain portray himself as more experienced and knowledgeable on foreign and military issues while defining him as the typical naive, weak Lib whose kumbaya-like approach would be harmful to America.

Suffice it to say, the first debate was not one of Obama's strongest showings, and was quite disappointing on many critical levels. Though some polls indicate that many viewers say he won, the more prominent national and daily tracking polls from Rasmussen and Gallup have moved no more than a point in Obama's favor, indicating that his performance Friday night had little if any real impact on voters. Unless, of course, you're one of those optimistic Dems who believe that success simply means the absence of failure.

So what should Obama do in the second debate, scheduled for October 7th? In no special order, here's what I'd be telling the candidate if I were advising him:

1. If the moderator invites you to challenge McCain directly, do it for Pete's sake! Be respectful and maintain a presidential air, but be forceful and aggressive in asking him pointed questions about his record and his policies. Put him on the spot, and push some buttons. Draw out the angry McCain.

2. Speak in a language that the little guy understands. Remind them that whether in times of financial prosperity or crisis, it is Democrats who've historically fought for them. That it's Democrats who fight for social services, job creation, health care, education and social security while Republicans fight to cut funding for same. Look into the camera, and then look at McCain, and ask incredulously, "are you really gonna try to convince voters watching tonight that it is the Republican Party that fights for America's poor and middle-class?"

3. Talk in a more folksy manner. Stop being so damned professorial. Don't lecture. Speak from the heart. Talk to voters through that camera. Tell them you understand their anxiety and feel their pain. Assure them that you will fight for them, and fight against the cronyism, corruption and special interests of the Republicans who've been in control for the past 15 years.

4. Hold McCain accountable for his failures and that of Bush and the GOP. Do not allow him the message of "change." Look straight into that camera and challenge Americans not to be fooled by a change message from the candidate who's been in Washington for 26 years and whose party's failed policies he's consistently and unconditionally supported.

5. Mention the term "poor and middle class" as often as possible. McCain did not mention them even once during the first debate.

6. Wherever/whenever possible, define McCain and the GOP as the candidate and party of the rich. The party that wants to continue giving huge tax cuts to the wealthy while taking away essential services for the poor and middle class.

7. Remind voters that you are one of them. Look straight into the camera, and then look at McCain and say, "I don't have 9 homes like my opponent, I have only one. I don't have 13 cars like my opponent. I only have one. Just like you. And I worry, just like you, as I don't have incredible wealth to fall back on like Sen. McCain. This economic crisis affects me just as it does you."

8. Give voters your concrete plan for dealing with the current financial meltdown. Provide specifics; five or six short, concise, sound byte-y examples of what you'd do as president to avoid future crises like this one, and very specifically how the bailout bill when it likely passes will impact your ability to govern fiscally.

9. Remind voters that it is McCain, Bush and the Republicans who've been in power for the last 15 years that have allowed the Wall Street financial collapse to occur by deregulating the banking and mortgage industries so that their rich corporate pals can get even richer instead of protecting the middle class.

10. Remind voters how strong your vice presidential pick, Sen. Joe Biden, is as compared to Gov. Sarah Palin. Look at McCain and then look into the camera and say "I have chosen the individual who is without question the best possible candidate in terms of knowledge and experience to to be my running mate... to be a heartbeat from the Oval Office. Sen. McCain, can you tell voters at home that you truly believe Gov. Palin is the best possible choice you could've made for America? That she's among the top 5, or even the top 10?"

11. When McCain speaks of "victory" or "success" in Iraq, challenge him and challenge hard. Ask him to define success. Ask him to clearly state when such success will allow us to leave. Ask him if he's certain that Iraq's fragile Democratic government will be strong enough to sustain itself in our absence. Ask if there's been real, measurable, lasting political change there.

12. On the surge, challenge hard that the original goal of sending 30,000 more troops was to help achieve political change in Iraq not merely to stem the tide of violence. Remind McCain that we still have more US troops there than when the invasion began in 2003. Challenge him to claim that cutting previously horrific levels of violence and death in half truly translates to "success."

13. Look directly into the camera and say, "America, can you really trust what Sen. McCain and his party say about our supposed victory in Iraq when they're the same people who told you there was WMD over there...that we'd be greeted as liberators...and who declared 'mission accomplished' 5 1/2 years, 4000 soldier deaths and half a trillion dollars ago?" Then turn to McCain and say, "Sen. McCain, tell the voters at home why they should give you any credibility on the status of Iraq right now when you've been 100% wrong about Iraq from the start? Tell them why your claims of victory in Iraq now should ring any more truthful than the ones you and Bush made prematurely about Afghanistan. Is this 'mission accomplished' all over again? You were wrong then, and you're wrong again now."

14. On Iran, look back into the camera and say, "Sen McCain is the same guy who along with President Bush warned you about the threat of Iraq's 'mushroom clouds' six years ago, and now he's trying to scare you once again about the "second Holocaust" threat from Iran. Stop scaring Americans, Sen. McCain. I say, one war based on wrong information and fear-mongering is enough. It's time we start talking with our enemies to prevent war, rather than act like reckless tough-talking cowboys who start them. Don't let Sen. McCain tell you that diplomacy doesn't work." Then turn to McCain and say, "Sen McCain, I'm sure you've heard of the Cold War. A strong U.S. military combined with aggressive diplomacy kept us from bloodshed with Russia for over 40 years. And it can work again. The war in Iraq which you continue to wholeheartedly support, and which Americans do not, has been the worst military blunder in our nation's history. The American people are fed up with unnecessary war.

15. Keep repeating wherever possible the "You were wrong" mantra. Constantly remind voters of McCain's horrible judgement on Iraq and why his judgements elsewhere should be of grave concern as a result.

16. When McCain accuses you of putting America at risk through direct negotiation with our enemies, remind him that Bush opened up direct talks with Libya's Moammar Qaddafi, an admitted terrorist and supporter of terrorist organizations, to positive results.

17. Repeatedly remind voters how McCain and Bush took their eye off of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda by prematurely declaring "victory" in Afghanistan while allowing those terrorists to regroup and rebuild in that country while we recklessly invaded Iraq over WMD that did not exist.

18. When McCain mocks you for requesting that cooler heads prevail after the Russian invasion into Georgia, hammer home that if cooler heads had prevailed back in 2003 perhaps we would not have had the last 5 1/2 years of bloodshed in Iraq.

19. Hammer home how McCain being wrong about Iraq demonstrates how he'll be just as reckless when it comes to Iran, Pakistan, N. Korea and our other enemies in the future.

20. Stay away from cheap ploys like your tit-for-tat bracelet moment.

21. Close strong. Make a defining statement about why John McCain has been on the wrong side of the war and the economy, and that America's pain and suffering will only continue should McCain become president. Attack him on the knowledge and experience issue. Accuse him of being out of touch with America; with what America wants and needs right now. Look into the camera and tell voters that McCain represents the failed policies of the past, and that you will fight for their best interests if they elect you their president. That you will create jobs for them and protect their savings. That you'll provide health care and education for them and their children. That you'll bring respect and honor back to America. How you'll return America back to the great diplomatic power it once was so that we don't send our sons and daughters to die in war ever again unless it is absolutely necessary to defend our nation. That the days of the Bush and McCain Doctrine of preemptive war based on faulty intelligence are over. Ask them for their vote so that you can help them live the American dream once again.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?