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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

An Honest Appraisal of Tonight's Debate

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I do not want to be just another voice from the Democratic base "spinning" the performances we saw tonight to the benefit of my favored candidate, Barack Obama, regardless of my true perception. The aspect of the debate that most concerned me about Obama's strategy tonight was his allowing John McCain repeatedly to utter the charge -- I think 10 or 11 times -- that Obama "does not understand" this issue or that issue. At one point McCain even said that Obama didn't "get it" -- which is Obama's line. I could not help but think of the 2004 Dick Cheney-John Edwards debate when the older, gray haired, more "experienced" Washington hand successfully upbraided his younger colleague diminishing his intellectual acuity and grasp of the issues. I cringed every time McCain said, without a forceful counter statement, that Obama "did not understand" the problems facing the country right now. Obama and his brilliant campaign strategists know far more about this kind of thing than I do and I have been proven wrong before, but allowing your opponent to question your "understanding" of the issues I think is a direct put-down and it requires a direct response in real time.

I think Obama missed many opportunities to forcefully counter McCain's frame he put on the issues -- in particular the financial and economic meltdown we are currently facing. I believe that Obama did not articulate or focus the righteous anger that is emanating from millions of Americans -- Right, Left, and Center -- who are outraged by the $700 billion welfare program for Wall Street investors. It is a Populist issue that cuts Obama's way yet he did not capitalize on it.

I did not like seeing McCain, the old Washington hand, setting up the frame of the economic debate as one on spending and taxing. Obama might have shifted the frame to deregulation and "trickle down" economics that have clearly failed. Or at least done so more forcefully. The Democrats are already saddled with the trope of being weak -- I think a little Bobby Kennedy spunk and fight in his blood tonight would have played well for Obama, particularly with working-class voters who value standing up for yourself.

I think Obama let McCain off the hook on the economy. McCain had a horrific week and Obama allowed him to redeem some of the damage inflicted since the financial meltdown came to dominate the recent news cycles. Obama simply missed many opportunities to jab back at McCain. Let me put it this way: If I were in a debate with some right-wing warmongering professor who was questioning my "understanding" of the world I would be offended and hit back hard.

Also, Obama said too many times that he "agreed" with McCain or McCain was "right." I wouldn't give that up, and in the same vein I would not allow someone to question my "understanding" of the difference between "strategy" and "tactics," especially a man who clearly does not understand the difference himself.

Barack Obama did not win this debate. I don't think he lost it either. But McCain was given far too much leeway in my opinion without counterpunching, which might reinforce the trope that Democrats don't know how to fight.

Televised presidential debates in the current era are not panel discussions on policy differences among wonks or debates about which Senate committee has jurisdiction over what. And promises about what you plan to do after becoming president don't mean anything either because everyone knows that the economic meltdown is going to severely circumscribe the options of the president by the fiscal reality, and the Congress will play a big role in any case -- so all that is left is a theatrical performance where average citizens get a chance to evaluate the two men as people.

I also wish Obama would have at least mentioned James Meredith's struggle of 1962 at Ole Miss -- but maybe that would have been impolitic.

In the final analysis, Obama is correct on all of the vital issues facing the United States of America at this time -- the strongest part for Obama was when he told McCain he was "wrong" on the war in Iraq and "wrong" on many other issues as well. He might have driven that idea home with more force and passion. I have no doubt that Obama's caution stems from not wishing to be framed as "angry" or overly excitable, and he didn't want to be seen as partisan (or passionate). His supporters, like myself, want him to fight with passion, but the politically smarter move might be what he did tonight. At least he did not arm his detractors with charges that he is petty or vindictive. I want to see a total repudiation of the last eight miserable years -- and I know that most Huffington Post readers feel that way too -- but tonight's debate showed me that Obama might still win the election, but we won't be getting the kind of repudiation of the Bush years we all so desire.