The Win-Win debate

By now most of us have seen the debate and the inevitable spin. Our eyes (and our general conservative leanings) tell us that McCain won the day. The liberals claim that Obama mopped the floor with McCain, and the media calls it a draw/advantage Obama. Who’s right? Everyone.

I think far too many view “victory” in the debates as some sort of intellectual victory criteria – the “victory on points” approach. This is academically interesting, but entirely the wrong approach. Each side is looking to advance their campaign, pure and simple, and this is one of the few avenues to directly connect with the public with limited spin and editing. I think it’s entirely fair to say that both sides have so far some out with what they wanted here.

First, Senator Obama. Yes, he stuttered a bit, but nowhere near as badly as he has in the past. Yes, his scowl/snarl thing and his interruptions probably cost him a bit, but he avoided the “you’re likable enough” type of gaffe. Senator Obama was never going to match McCain on foreign policy depth, and he knew it. His campaign going in needed to prove that he was credible on foreign policy and able to handle himself on his own, and make this case to defecting democrats, moderate independents, and liberal republicans. I think he achieved this – not as well as he might have, but acceptably.

Senator McCain had a completely different set of goals coming in. Sure, he needed to show his foreign policy depth, but if he couldn’t do this in his sleep he was sunk. He needed to hold his own on the inevitable economic questions and dispel the perception of being the “erratic, doddering old man” in the campaign (I believe “Dole-ing” is the proper term). And he did that – he was energetic and engaging, and very much the conservative statesman. He clearly knew foreign policy inside and out, and had credible answers for the economic questions raised. He needed to reinforce Senator Obama’s inexperience and the risks thereof, and present himself as a non-Bush reformer in a way that attracts conservative democrats, independents, and liberal republicans, and I believe he did as well as could be expected here given the presumption that he’s the better candidate on foreign policy to begin with.

As for the MSM take, they are correct that this is a draw/Obama advantage at this point in time, as Obama had far more to lose. While this may be a tactical draw that favors Obama, the strategic picture is much harder to see. Forget Braceletquiddick … there is real ammo here for McCain on substantive grounds.

On economics, many have criticized McCain for not tying Obama to Fannie/Freddie and the meltdown. I think this is an unfair dig – the bailout talks are progressing, and pushing too hard on this in the short term risks a breakdown of the bailout talks, which would be catastrophic. Once a deal is in hand and signed McCain can not only tie them to the shady sub-prime lenders through contributions, but also note that their bailout deal would send another $150 billion to some of the same agencies that promoted the loans that caused the crisis in the first place. John’s work to bring on board the House GOP looks likely to prevent this catastrophe. There’s also an ad in the fact that when asked to choose what to hold off on, Obama couldn’t name a single program he’d delay.

On the foreign policy side, the best ad is already right … “I agree … John is right”. Just add Rudy’s “Call John McCain” from the convention and you’ve got a nice TV spot that isn’t “too negative”. The biggest gaffe I see from Senator Obama was responding to questions about Afghanistan with a “I’m proud of my VP”. That’s just begging to be made into an ad … how many presidents brag of delegating foreign policy to their VP?

I didn’t see anything similar on McCain’s side that isn’t already out there – Senator Obama certainly isn’t going to run an ad saying that John McCain is bad for “only” saving a few hundred million dollars, but perhaps there’s something I missed.

Overall I think this was a “victory on points” for McCain and a tactical draw, but I suspect the strategic picture slightly favors McCain if he takes advantage of the opening. I think there are genuine reasons that undecided voters are skeptical of both candidates, and I think both improved their standing somewhat with these undecided voters. I don’t see this as driving them decisively one way or another (much as I’d like to), but it has changed the “narrative” and allowed a pivot back to the campaign for both.