First, something is Not Quite Right with Jim Lehrer. There were about four points where I was wondering whether he was on something. But that's not important (although it was weirdly entertaining.) And McCain had some really interesting moments: an end to ethanol subsidies and a spending freeze? The polls from Iowa and Ohio over the next few days should be interesting. But it's Obama who has me muttering darkly to myself this morning.
About a million people have observed that throughout the campaign, Obama has had a tone problem. There is the Nice Obama; he can be downright inspiring when he is talking to other Nice People, but he gets fluffy and unfocussed when an antagonist gets in his face. Then there is the Snarky Obama; his recent ads attacking McCain - like the awful "e-mail" ad - were supposed to show aggressiveness, but they were first cute and then descended into the same kind of misleading half-truths the other side was peddling.
What has been missing is the Strong Leader Obama, the guy who is master of the facts, unruffled by attempts at intimidation, forceful and pointed in his presentation, and always, always, dignified and serious. Last night would have been a great opportunity for the Strong Leader Obama to make an appearance, particularly because McCain was stuck deep in his Angry Grandpa mode.
Unfortunately, that's not what happened. I'm not talking about the repeated "John is right" statement - although that can be phrased better as "now there's a point where John and I do not disagree" - and overall I thought it was a draw, while focus group data suggest that a fair number of undecided voters preferred Obama. But where were the facts? Aside from "we took our eye off the ball" re Afghanistan, Obama barely offered any specifics at all, and never contradicted McCain's assertions. Which was infuriating, because about half the time McCain was pummeling Obama with claims that were demonstrably wrong. I know Obama does not want to appear too intellectual for his own good, but focus groups and polls and anecdotal evidence confirms over and over that voters want him to provide more "specifics." Last night was a golden opportunity to do so, and he blew it. "Obama doesn't understand" was McCain's mantra; at least once, Obama might have pointed out that McCain didn't know what he was talking about.
Take Pakistan. Obama called support for Musharraf an example of Cold War thinking in which we support a dictator because he is our dictator. A decent point, although I'm not sure that a promise not to support any non-democratic regimes in the future bodes well for our strategies in, say, the Middle East. McCain came right back at Obama and insisted this was an example of his not "understanding." And Obama just left it there.
Which was really unfortunate, because there was a lot to be said. Besides his inability to pronounce the name "Zardari" ("Kedari??"), McCain's statement that Musharraf was a hero who rescued a failed state should have elicited some response. Musharraf took power in a military coup in 1999 deposing Nawaz Sharif who had just won an election; at the time, the United States responded with sanctions. Later, A.Q. Khan was peddling nuclear weapons technology around the world during Musharraf's reign; in 2004 Musharraf pardoned him. In 2007 Musharraf suspended the nation's constitution and jailed justices of the nation's supreme court in order to remain in power, leading to a near-revolt that destabilized the country; he resigned under threat of impeachment. And while Musharraf was our ally in the War on Terror, the Taliban established the safe havens in the border provinces that are the source of the most dangerous attacks in Afghanistan. "Now," Obama might have finished, "the point is not that Musharraf is one of the bad guys or one of the good guys, the point is that in real life things are just more complicated than that. A president has to take a position based on the facts, not a soundbite. Just this past week John McCain made all kinds of statements about Secretary Paulson's plans for the financial markets on Sunday and Monday, and then on Tuesday he told us that he hadn't ever actually read the plan. It's only two and a half pages long - some time between Friday and Tuesday John might have taken the time to find out what was in the plan before he started taking positions about it."
Or take Georgia. McCain specifically singled out Obama's call for "both sides to show restraint" early in the crisis as a key indicator of Obama's "naivete." Obama could have answered that while it is true that Russia had been provoking Georgia for a year, the Georgian government acted in an unacceptable way when it launched artillery and rocket attacks against the capital city of South Ossetia, killing hundreds of civilians.
Or the surge. McCain kept hammering the surge; how is it possible that Obama did not prepare some specifics to talk about in response? Starting with the fact that while additional U.S. troops played a crucial role in tamping down Shiite insurgent violence, the biggest factor in bringing the Sunni militias under control and in suppressing Al Qaeda was the "Sunni Awakening," a program that put 120,000 Sunni fighters on our payroll after the local populations had turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq because of its excessive violence. How does that part of the "surge" strategy translate in Afghanistan?
Or Israel. How, oh how, could Obama have failed to use this opportunity to mention his 100% lifetime rating from AIPAC, and tossing a few bones to the Jewish voters of Florida?
Or Syria, which always gets left out of this conversation. McCain has identified Syria as a nation not to be talked to. (Along with Spain - why did Obama let him off so lightly on that one? McCain's answer - "I don't have a presidential social calendar yet" was an evasion of his own previoius statement.) Obama could have pointed out that Syria supports Hamas and Hezbollah and that bad elements enter Iraq from across the Syrian border, but he could then also have observed that Syria was open to negotiations with Israel during the Barak administration and that there were indications of a willingness to sit down during the Olmert administration. He could have pointed out that Syria - like Iraq prior to our invastion - is governed by a secular, Baathist government, whose greatest enemy is Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists, who have launched a number of terrorist operations inside Syria. That would have been prescient, given today's headlines detailing what appears to be an Al Qaeda bombing in Damascus.
I know, I know. Everyone will tell me that American voters are too stupid to appreciate anything that smacks of complexity, and that a candidate only wins by making everything into a black-and-white cartoon. But if McCain is going to say over and over "I have been to Waziristan" the answer has to be "and what did you learn there?" A lot of commentators have observed that there were no good sound bites in Obama's arguments; that might have been a good one. Here are some others he might have used: "a President has to know the facts." Or "we need carrots as well as sticks." Or how about this: "John McCain is trying to make the 21st century world fit into a 20th century script."
This isn't just Monday morning quarterbacking; this was so obvious that I assumed it would show up in Obama's debate strategy. Instead, we got Nice Obama. Oh, well, Tuesday should be fun: Trophy versus Scranton in a steel cage death match. The potential gaffes! Will Biden promise to bring an end to the American coal industry? Will Palin wax eloquent on the strategic threat posed by flocks of migratory birds flying -- in formation, mind you -- above Alaska's airfields? Will Gwen Ifill keep a straight face? I can hardly wait.
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