Barack Obama and John McCain squared off tonight for the first presidential debate. All through the night my Facebook page was blowing up with congratulatory posts and chest-pounding status updates. But among the self-congratulatory excitement was a palpable sigh at the heavy reality that is settling in. The question now looms: Is it enough to simply be the better candidate? I say no, and here's why.
- Attention Obama fans: He already has your vote. This isn't the primary; it's the general election. You need to remember that this is now mostly a fight for the heartland, aka the red and pink states. The so-called swing voters are not disenchanted Hillary supporters. Those we can count on to do the right thing, even the P.U.M.A.'s. These are corn-belt Reagan types -- or as they're usually called, 'hard working people.' They don't believe in a Bush III presidency, but a slick Shepard Fairey poster doesn't sway them either. Obama needs to tell these folks they've been sold a bill of goods by the Republicans for the past eight years and lay it out for them in stark detail. He's got to remind them that it wasn't the Democrats that failed to fund the war; it was George Bush failing to fund the Veterans Administration. It wasn't Democrats who allowed the economy to tank, it was the so-called party of the fiscally conservative that watched it all come barreling up to this point. And he needs to paint the slippery maverick with a big bulls eye and not let him slink aboard the Circular Talk Express, as Jon Stewart described it.
- Democrats are still wusses (so tempting to say what I really think). At least that's the view in Middle America. Why did Obama recite all of his military arguments as a solo act? Why didn't he quote any of the many generals and military folk that support his campaign and ask McCain to counter them? What about his support from former secretaries of state or veterans? He looked only slightly better than a typical Democrat overcompensating for his nuanced positions on foreign affairs and military policy. What about using the words of Colin Powell, who just the other day pretty much blamed Condi and George for being asleep at the wheel while Georgia spiraled towards conflict with Russia? Why not toss McCain's 'We're all Georgians' back down his throat? Dozens of military leaders would probably echo Obama's more careful stance with Russia and aim sharp criticism at the reckless Georgians. Why not ask McCain how he hopes to get his Republican machine in line, the same ones who mangled almost every step of this war and occupation since the jump?
- McCain was wrong about Pakistan, and not just in the pronunciation of its president's name. When McCain challenged Obama for pushing for raids into Pakistan territory in pursuit of Al'Qaeda, Obama needed to push back hard. It isn't enough to clown McCain for his 'Bomb Iran' song--Iran is an enemy of America, according to popular opinion, so only bleeding hearts care about war drums for them. Instead, why didn't Obama mention the raids that are already happening (at least according to the Pakistanis) courtesy of the Bush administration? Our soldiers and helicopters are already engaged in firefights with the Pakistani army, under our current president. Why not force McCain to criticize his commander in chief for real time operations -- a political plank walk -- as opposed to letting him beat you up about your hypothetical declarations?
- Aaron Sorkin will not get you elected. This isn't The West Wing. At this point, Mr. Obama, your presidential poise is becoming a liability. Time to break a sweat and get some blood on the fists. Forget the angry black man tag, the once dynamic new thinker is in danger of just being another young, good-looking politician. And the Democrats lose with those all the time.
- Sarah Palin doesn't matter. Get over it. No, she only obliquely came up in a quick McCain comment tonight, but she's never far from Obama supporter's arguments. Yes, even some conservatives know she's a tool. But continuing to attack her only makes he stronger. Leave her alone and let her fail/fall/fumble on her own. The VP debate is just around the corner. If she doesn't go down then, she'll never wilt under a thousand late night jokes and mean political cartoons.
- Love doesn't get people elected. Fear does. Sorry, but that's the cold truth. Obama has gotten this far on the backs of our love for him, his spirit, the hope he inspires, and how he makes us feel. Unfortunately, that hasn't won an election since 1960 and it barely worked then. A better make-up job on Nixon and we'd never have heard of John F Kennedy. We're a lot more cynical society today and there are two wars raging, terrorism fears and near financial collapse. What's love got to do with all that?
- Hillary. Obama could have utilized Hillary several times during the debate. For one, McCain mentioned her by name as an example of his bipartisan budget cutting. Then a few minutes later, he cut down Obama's health care plan as some sort of socialist government program. Hello, that's Clinton's plan too -- and it comes with 18 million hungry voters. Why not take that straight to McCain while Clinton's name's still fresh in the room? Mr. Obama, please use these Hillary voters to your advantage and talk to them whenever you can. And never let your opponent co-op her name.
- America knows Obama opposed the war. A big part of the reason he captured the nomination was because he won the battle of good judgment long before the middle of the country had finally grown sour on Iraq. But now he finds himself sounding like a broken record in a room where the mood might have more recently changed. The war now looks less important, if not 'winnable' to many. So when McCain accused Obama of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, it has an effect, especially among those heartland voters he needs. No matter how unfortunate and inaccurate this view is, it's a defining characteristic of defeatist Democrats. (And, by the way, citing Biden as evidence of your military experience just plays into the hands of critics who think you chose him simply to prop up your foreign policy deficits.)
- Obama is still too defensive. He answered several of McCain's attacks with agitated counter attacks. This style might please the ringside cheering crowd, but it doesn't feel presidential to me. I wanted to see him rise above McCain's jabs and use his statements as a launching pad to his hopefully more sound solutions. Then, after he's decimated his opponent's presumed weaker or hypocritical positions, he can come back and finish him off by dismantling his statements.
- Still standing is winning. Unless you're Obama. Chris Rock put it best: you can't beat white people; you can only knock them out. Replace 'white' with 'standard bearing gray-haired legacy candidate' and the rule applies. Applying this to the presidential race means is that it isn't enough for the contender -- Obama -- to just stay in the ring. When you're fighting the presumptive heir to the championship belt, you need to knock them completely to the mat. Kerry didn't do it and neither did Gore. Obama needed to leave McCain lying in a pool of Republican contradictions and failed Bushisms. But like the nightmares I have when I'm swinging at an attacking opponent and just not connecting hard enough to make a difference, I kept shadow boxing on my sofa as Obama took admirable swings but landed insufficiently. He needed to send McCain tumbling (Hell, I'd settle for grumbling or mumbling). It didn't happen tonight.
Stay tuned for the next round. I hope I'm wrong about all of this.
What Middle America sees: