Consensus On Obama McCain Debate: McCain Didn’t Get Needed “Game Changer”

A general consensus is emerging in the new and old media — even among many Democrats and some Republicans — that Republican Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain failed to get the game-changing event out of his second debate with Democratic Senator Barack Obama.

In fact, on CNN Republican bigwig and former adviser to Presidents of both parties David Gergen called McCain’s debate performance “a missed opportunity.”

News reports varied in how they described the event. Some called it bland. Others, spirited. But the most memorable moment in the event — the sound bite that will be played over and over in this era of “high concept” and politics-as-emotion — is when McCain dismissively referred to Obama as “that one” while an unshaken Obama stood by and watched. And it’s not a plus for McCain:
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Here’s a roundup of new and old media reaction to the debate from writers of different viewpoints:

From NPR’s Roundtable:

Weekly Standard’s Matt Continetti: “I was struck by a few moments in this debate, where McCain, in trying to make a case for himself made a case for Obama.” McCain mentioned “his hero Ronald Reagan” multiple times. “But at the end of the debate Obama made the Reagan case” by asking, “Are you better off?”

More Continetti, on speaking softly and carrying a big stick: “The problem is” that McCain’s “initial response to the financial crisis was erratic. One moment he was saying ‘the fundamentals are strong,’ the next he is saying it is a mess. … It was Obama who had the steady response in the financial crisis.”

Washington Post’s EJ Dionne: I don’t think that McCain shook the race up. … There was a lot of speculation that in order to shake the race up McCain was going to get real personal.” As VP nominee Sarah Palin has done on the trail recently. “You can’t blame the Weather Underground for blowing up this economy. … It is quite obvious that you can’t turn a page on the finance crisis in this campaign.”

–Glenn Reynolds:”NEITHER ONE OF THESE GUYS IS REALLY ON HIS GAME, but Obama, for all his uhs and ahs, is looking like he’s having fun. McCain looks like he’s already bored with the whole thing. Hey, McCain, you asked for ten of these!” Reynolds also has a roundup.

–Andrew Sullivan did live blogging. His conclusion:

10.33 pm. This was, I think, a mauling: a devastating and possibly electorally fatal debate for McCain. Even on Russia, he sounded a little out of it. I’ve watched a lot of debates and participated in many. I love debate and was trained as a boy in the British system to be a debater. I debated dozens of times at Oxofrd. All I can say is that, simply on terms of substance, clarity, empathy, style and authority, this has not just been an Obama victory. It has been a wipe-out.It has been about as big a wipe-out as I can remember in a presidential debate. It reminds me of the 1992 Clinton-Perot-Bush debate. I don’t really see how the McCain campaign survives this.

The Daily Kos’ Kos:

Anyone watching CNN on a hi-def TV could see the dial focus group of a bunch of Ohio undecided voters. And throughout the night, it often seemed that Obama would break the darn meter, his ratings going through the roof. McCain, on the other hand, was the king of the flatline. I swear, you could see the downticks every time McCain said “my friends” — a tell to the audience that he was about to serve another heaping dish of b.s. It was painful. According to the Republican pre-debate spin, McCain was supposed to use “humor” to soften the blow of his mighty attacks, but 1) did any of his attacks connect? and 2) can anyone say, in all seriousness, that McCain delivered a single effective laugh line? And earmarks? Does McCain still think anyone outside of the wingnutosphere give a damn about “earmarks”?

For all the pre-debate stuff about the townhall benefitting McCain, Obama looked far better here. He is at his best when he can speechify, and that’s what he was able to do here. And really, Obama is the picture of “cool”. The side-by-side comparison isn’t kind. But even on substance, it wasn’t close.

–Pajamas Media’s Stephen Green did his famous live blogging. His conclusion:

8:35PM Instant analysis? McCain won, but not by nearly enough to matter. He was up against a punk kid, and barely came away on points. Barely.

Jonathan Singer:

First, and most important, John McCain failed to make the most of this opportunity — one of his last — to fundamentally change the direction of this race. Nothing, and I mean nothing, occurred tonight that will put McCain back in the driver’s seat of this campaign, let alone help him retake a lead.

Beyond that, McCain had some serious optics problems during the debate. McCain’s lurking in the background was truly Cheney-esque, and that’s just not a good likeness for the GOP nominee. And McCain’s extreme derisiveness towards Barack Obama, unwilling to call him by name, instead only calling him “that one,” seriously undercuts the notion that McCain can be a cool operator on the world stage. Note also that Obama’s jokes did connect with the audience — he got a nice chuckle towards the end of the debate when he said that Michelle could easily list all of the things he doesn’t know — while the only laugh McCain earned during all of his botched jokes over the course of the debate was from Tom Brokaw.

NRO’s Andy McCarty:

We have a disaster here — which is what you should expect when you delegate a non-conservative to make the conservative (nay, the American) case. We can parse it eight ways to Sunday, but I think the commentary is missing the big picture.

Here’s what Obama needed to do tonight: Convince the country that he was an utterly safe, conventional, centrist politician who may have leftward leanings but will do the right thing when the crunch comes.

Now, as the night went along, did you get the impression that Obama comes from the radical Left? Did you sense that he funded Leftist causes to the tune of tens of millions of dollars? Would you have guessed that he’s pals with a guy who brags about bombing the Pentagon? Would you have guessed that he helped underwrite raging anti-Semites? Would you come away thinking, “Gee, he’s proposing to transfer nearly a trillion dollars of wealth to third-world dictators through the UN”?

Nope. McCain didn’t want to go there. So Obama comes off as just your average Center-Left politician. Gonna raise your taxes a little, gonna negotiate reasonably with America’s enemies; gonna rely on our very talented federal courts to fight terrorists and solve most of America’s problems; gonna legalize millions of hard-working illegal immigrants.

–Former Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, writing in The Huffington Post:

The big story tonight that’s central to this contest: Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of President Obama. He widened that comfort zone tonight. He was at ease as he responded to individual voters. He was powerful and emotional as he discussed and dominated the very human question of health care. The “other,” as the Republicans labored to paint him, now comes across as reassuring, a strong and steady hand in a crisis, possessed of that grace under pressure that Americans prize in a president. Obama had it again tonight. McCain did marginally better than in the last debate, but far, far from good enough. He lost on the issues and Obama won on style. (Why does McCain prefer the town hall format? For understandable reasons, he’s awkward wandering around a stage and looks more comfortable at a podium.)

Now it’s back to the campaign trail and the mudbath that after tonight the Republicans will see more and more as their only chance. In my view it’s not the path to victory but to dishonor. There is some evidence Republicans don’t care about that, but some believe that McCain used to. So the next time someone in a crowd she gins up shouts “traitor” at the mention of Obama’s name, Palin ought to reach into that studied vernacular vocabulary of hers and tell them to “shut up.” She won’t of course. She wants this reaction; I guess McCain does too. It’s all they’ve got.

Obama did tie McCain to President Bush in just about every answer; McCain criticized Obama in just about every answer.

–Michelle Malkin did extensive live blogging. At the end she wrote this:

11:16pm Eastern. I’m forcing myself to watch some of the post-debate commentary.

Disaster: Mitt Romney apparently wasn’t made aware of McCain’s new $300 billion housing entitlement plan. And Fred Thompson could barely muster up enthusiasm for McCain.

No mention of Ayers. No mention of ACORN. Not even the feeblest attempt to expose Obama’s radical roots.


Senator Hillary Clinton released a statement:

“As we saw, Senator Obama displayed beyond a doubt that he understands both the gravity of the financial crisis facing America, and the challenges we face in Iraq and around the world. Senator McCain offered only more of the same failed policies of the Bush Administration. It’s time for a change.”

-Political Wire:

Tonight’s debate wasn’t even close. Sen. Barack Obama ran away with it — particularly when speaking about the economy and health care. Talking about his mother’s death from cancer was very powerful. On nearly every issue, Obama was more substantive, showed more compassion and was more presidential.

In contrast, Sen. John McCain was extremely erratic. Sometimes he was too aggressive (referring to Obama as “that one.”) Other times, he just couldn’t answer the question (on how he would ask Americans to sacrifice.) And his random attempts at jokes (hair transplants?) were just bad.

Marc Ambinder:

The questioners were mostly props, the format, negotiated by both campaigns, was terrible, and there weren’t any memorable moments. CW says that John McCain had a 90 minute window to turn his campaign around – to put into play the McCain Resurgence Strategy, if you will, and if that’s the CW threshold, I don’t think McCain met it. With the exception of “That One,” McCain seemed less irritable, although his jokes seemed hokey and fell flat – they don’t work when no one laughs. Obama got off to a slow start; he does that a lot, but his last 45 minutes were much stronger. Prediction: The funniest thing SNL will do Thursday night will be about Brokaw trying to get control of this debate.

Obama did tie McCain to President Bush in just about every answer; McCain criticized Obama in just about every answer.

The Washington Post’s Post Partisan blog:

Well, so much for the idea that the town hall format helps John McCain.

In the town halls staged by his campaign, where the crowds are composed almost entirely of his supporters, McCain has been relaxed, and has been on the stage by himself. In Nashville tonight, neither of those particulars applied. Instead, as he and Barack Obama wandered around the stage, McCain overwhelmingly conveyed the impression — not to put too fine a point on it — that he’s old.

In fact, McCain looks older than he is. He cannot move as easily or fluidly as he could had he not had his limbs broken while a prisoner of war. But he was stiff in a format that rewards fluidness. And that sense of age was accentuated by the contrast with Obama and by a number of McCain’s answers and comments. As I look at my notes from tonight’s debate, I see that I marked McCain’s appearance twice – first, when he answered the question of what to do about entitlements by referring to the deal Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill worked out 25 years ago, and, second, as he moved across the stage following an Obama answer that referenced the need to anticipate 21st-century challenges.

San Francisco Chronicle:

John McCain is playing defense in all the battleground states, and all Obama needed to do was hold his own and drive home his populist message on the economy. While sticking mainly to vague generalities and skirting tough questions, he succeeded in giving the impression that he would soothe middle-class woes and set the country back on track. He exuded his usual calm and looked presidential, important in a time of crisis.

Get used to Obama, if you’re not already, using a lot of “ands,” and making many, many “and one more” points. He’s logical and rational, not emotional. He is very disciplined, seldom abandoning his talking points. Even on the attack, he’s always cool and serious. If he has a wicked sense of humor, he doesn’t show it, at least not in high-wire presidential debates. But he uses a broad smile to disarm attacks.


I thought that Barack Obama won the “visuals” of tonight’s debate. He looked younger and more vigorous, of course, but, in addition, John McCain did too much moving around. He seemed focused on addressing a “town hall,” as he has done so well over the years. But in reality, as Obama seemed quicker to appreciate, the audience tonight was in the television land. To them, McCain’s movement must have seemed a bit aimless.

On substance, I thought the debate was fairly even. McCain came across better on economic issues than he has in the past, but still struggled at times for the fluency (or perhaps glibness) with which Obama is able to address these matters. In any event, I suspect that, whatever the quality of McCain’s debate performance, he’s going to take the fall for the economy.

…A win on the visuals and at least a draw on substance (if that’s a fair assessment) is a win for Obama at this point. So tonight he moves a little closer to the presidency. I continue to believe that voters will subject him to one more round of serious scrutiny when the debates are over. Tonight’s performance marginally enhances his chance of surviving that scrutiny, which was already pretty good.

-Political Wire:

Tonight’s debate wasn’t even close. Sen. Barack Obama ran away with it — particularly when speaking about the economy and health care. Talking about his mother’s death from cancer was very powerful. On nearly every issue, Obama was more substantive, showed more compassion and was more presidential.

In contrast, Sen. John McCain was extremely erratic. Sometimes he was too aggressive (referring to Obama as “that one.”) Other times, he just couldn’t answer the question (on how he would ask Americans to sacrifice.) And his random attempts at jokes (hair transplants?) were just bad.

Hugh Hewitt:

The critical exchange came early, and McCain won it because he has the truth on his side. Obama did not answer McCain’s stinging assault on Obama’s and his party’s complicity in the financial meltdown brought about by Fannie and Freddie. Obama’s statement that “I never supported Fannie Mae” is an invitation to MSM to examine his real relationship with this financial crisis and its prime movers. This exchange need to be replayed again and again, as does McCain’s comparison of Obama’s tax and protectionism policies with those of Hoover’s.

The rest of the debate is a non-event which favors Obama since he is ahead, except perhaps for the question on Iran, which has to always help McCain with American voters who support Israel and the close where McCain reminds voters again of his seriousness and experience. Indeed the final 30 minutes turned back to foreign affairs in a repeat of the questions of the first debate. Obama fluently presents defeatism as an acceptable strategy, and McCain’s strong suit is his experience, but he did not attack Obama directly and missed opportunities to do so.

-Ed Morrissey:

The second presidential debate goes into the record books, and this time both men managed to stick closer to their game plans. Barack Obama rid himself of the “John is right” tic that appeared in various forms almost a dozen times in the first debate. John McCain gave a much more focused response on economic issues. In the end — literally, in this case — McCain prevailed on his strength on foreign policy and national security.

…McCain won, but he didn’t score a knockout by any stretch of the imagination. Is this a game-changer? I think not. It may help narrow the gap a little, but I think the two men are pretty evenly matched in these debates. I wouldn’t expect a knockout in the last debate, either.

The New Republic:

After the first debate, I didn’t have a strong sense of who won. This time I do: Obama crushed McCain.

I’ll predict that two things broke through. First, Obama constantly invoked the lived experience of Americans and explained how his proposals would relate to them. McCain hardly ever did this–even when he got specific, like on pork barrel spending, he did not relate it to peoples’ lives. Second, McCain was just nasty–calling Obama “that one,” and delivering zingers like “Did we hear the size of the fine” with a smile so forced it looked like it would break his face.

Real Clear Politics’ lively blog:

There were moments. I think McCain scored when he said “I got news for you, Sen. Obama. The news is bad.” And I think Obama scored by sounding reassuring on his health-care plan. The questions were boring, certainly when one expects something a little different from this kind of format. You could have put these two on a stage, gave all the questions to a moderator, and it wouldn’t have been much different. McCain did well. He was certainly better on the economy than in the first debate. But if this was one of McCain’s last moments to turn around the election, it’s hard to see how he scored.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows:

1) From a horse-race perspective, John McCain came in behind and losing ground, in the middle of a financial/economic panic that works against him, and therefore needing a big win. This meant either damaging and flummoxing Obama, or so outshining him in audience rapport, mastery of policy, and empathetic connection through the camera, that the debate could be presented as a turning point. None of that happened. (McCain’s best performance was at the end, rejecting a “Yes/No” question on whether Russia is an “evil empire.”) At this stage in the race, a tie goes to the leader, and this was not even a tie.

2) “That one.” Difficult to discuss. Unwise (and unnecessary) for Obama or his campaign ever to mention themselves. But creates an impression that may be impossible to erase.

3) The betting had been, including from me, that this Town Hall format would best suit McCain — the informality, the opportunity for jokeyness, the track record of handling such questions easily. To my eye, that betting turned out wrong, partly through McCain’s doing and partly through Obama’s.

Current ran another Hack The Debate on Twitter and here are some debate viewers’ short comments:

* I’m hanging on by my fingernails economically and there’s nothing comforting from what I’m hearing in this debate.
* HIGH STAKES DEBATE! HIGH STAKES ELECTION!!! I need to calm down, lol.
* I want to see Obama fight hard.
* Within 30 words Obama is pointing fingers. Tired of this, yo. I love ya, man, but focus on ideas, not McCain.
* How can we afford both a $700 billion bailout AND a tax cut? Can Obama explain that?
* McCain can’t relate to the audience like Obama.
* McCain does not inspire confidence — he looks old and tired.
* Ordinary families?? Why didn’t ordinary families get the 800 billion bailout??
* Watching the debate – not sure either candiate [sic] will truly help the American people and our economy.
* Ugh – neither of these guys are economists or scientists.
* I could see McCain in a cardigan, nodding off at the family Thanksgiving table. Obama I could actually see in office.

Consensus On Obama McCain Debate: McCain Didn't Get Needed
Consensus On Obama McCain Debate: McCain Didn't Get Needed
Consensus On Obama McCain Debate: McCain Didn't Get Needed
Consensus On Obama McCain Debate: McCain Didn't Get Needed
Consensus On Obama McCain Debate: McCain Didn't Get Needed
Consensus On Obama McCain Debate: McCain Didn't Get Needed
Consensus On Obama McCain Debate: McCain Didn't Get Needed
Consensus On Obama McCain Debate: McCain Didn't Get Needed

  • CitizenKang

    Hey Joe, I just wanted to thank you for your roundups, and especially appreciate that you include a variety of voices.

    I, personally, don't have the stomach (or time) to wade into the right wing blogosphere, but I very much appreciate knowing what they're up to!