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Posted by on Oct 16, 2008 in Media, Politics | 1 comment

Reflections on the Third Obama-McCain Debate

I actually don’t have a great deal to add today to what I wrote last night about the debate in my long and occasionally rambling live-blogging post.

Obama won. Pretty easily. That’s about it. And that’s pretty much the consensus today.

One of the best summaries comes, as usual, from TNR’s Noam Scheiber: “[T]he debate in a nutshell: McCain fulminating angrily, if sometimes effectively; Obama yielding more than he should at times, but still deadly on bottom-line differences. The election obviously isn’t over. But McCain came up empty on his last, best chance.”


For some reaction to the whole “Joe the Plumber” story, and to the real Joe Wurzelbacher, see the full version of this post over at my place.


I wrote recently about what I call “the revolt against the punditocracy,” whereby the people, according to the polls, decisively disagreed with the pundits’ initial reaction of the first presidential debate and the vice-presidential debate. Many pundits called that first debate for McCain, or at least called it a draw. In contrast, the people, by a substantial margin, gave it to Obama. Many pundits said that Palin was, if not the outright winner of her debate, at least the winner of the expectations game. In contrast, the people, by a similarly substantial margin, gave it to Biden.

The pundits seem to have gotten the message. After both the second and third debates (and it was quite evident last night) many were far more cautious in terms of their initial appraisals than they had been before. There were the notable exceptions, hyper-partisans like Bill Bennett (who’s hardly much of a pundit) on CNN, but, overall, I detected a certain uneasiness, as if they wanted to wait for the poll results before weighing in, at which point they generally agreed with the people.

To put it another way, the pundits often — it may not be a general rule, but it’s close — get it wrong. And they do so, in my view, because they focus not on substance but on style. What matters to them is the expectations game, the drama, the theater. Instead of focusing on content, they look for game-changing moments, gotchas and gaffes, snappy one-liners that easily digested and easily regurgitated.

This is not to suggest that the people (and, yes, I’m speaking of them as if they were a monolith) do not care about such things. Clearly they do. Negative ads work, for example, or at least can work, and the look of a candidate can mean as much as what he or she says. Voters in 1960 who listened on radio thought that Nixon won the now-famous debate, while voters who watched it on TV thought that Kennedy won. Why? Because Kennedy was cool and collected while Nixon was unshaven and sweaty. Now, in 2008, not much has changed. Voters are reacting negatively not just to what McCain says but to how he looks, how he sounds, how he comes across. And they are reacting positively to Obama not just because of his policy proposals but because he has come across as presidential. But it’s like skating on thin ice. If Obama were to lose his control, even for a brief moment, he would immediately be characterized as yet another angry black man, in other words, as a vicious, racist stereotype.

Still, this time, with information coming from so many different channels, and with a good deal of insecurity and uncertainty out there, the people are looking beyond the surface and, according to the polls, rewarding Obama on the actual merits, that is, on substance. The punditocracy has clued in, sort of, and is now taking its cues as much from the people as from its own sense of entitlement.

For more on this, in a related way, see Joe Klein, who has an excellent post up at Time‘s Swampland: “Pundits tend to be a lagging indicator. This is particularly true at the end of a political pendulum swing. We’ve been conditioned by thirty years of certain arguments working — and John McCain made most of them last night against Barack Obama.” Read the whole thing. In brief: Many journalists are “trapped in the assumptions of the past,” and hence unable to see things clearly in the here and now. And so many of them have bought into the old-style attacks (anti-liberal, anti-government) of McCain (and Palin). But it’s a different time now, a different world. And “this is a very good year to be Senator Government,” namely, Barack Obama.


Well, I guess I did have quite a bit to add.

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