Initial reflections on the first Obama-McCain debate
*** UPDATED BELOW ***
I agree with Creature. McCain looked and sounded bitter, vindictive, and small. While Obama was presidential throughout, agreeing with McCain on occasion, exuding generosity and expansiveness and, above all, presenting a substantive articulation of his policies and positions, McCain dismissed him repeatedly as "naive," turning much of the debate into an ad hominem assault. He never even looked at Obama.
Which is not to say that Obama won, let alone won easily. I'd say it was roughly a draw, with McCain doing well at times, notably in presenting himself, however inaccurately, as a long-time maverick with tons of experience. As well, Obama could have done better connecting McCain to Bush on issues like tax cuts for the wealthy and Iraq, and stressing just how wrong McCain has been on those and other issues. (Obama didn't, perhaps because he couldn't, suggest, even implicitly, that McCain's volatile temperament makes him unfit for the Oval Office.) I'd also add that McCain did well on Russia and on support for veterans. Yes, I'll admit it, there were a few moments when McCain seemed fairly commanding, or at least fairly sure of himself, but he also seemed annoyed and angry. Contrary to Obama, who seemed frustrated with McCain's deceptions and misrepresentations.
Overall, though, I think Candy Crowley's right that it was all rather flat, especially the beginning.
Using the ubiquitous boxing metaphor, there was no knock-out punch from either side -- but, then, these debates don't lend themselves to such punches. (Although McCain's inability to pronounce the names Ahmadinejad (Iran) and Zardari (Pakistan) was pretty embarrassing.)
On the merits, though, I do think Obama won. He did well early on discussing the financial crisis, he did well on Iraq, he did well defending his position on talking to foreign leaders without preconditions (but with preparation), he did well on (alternative) energy, he did well on Russia and nuclear proliferation, and he did well on most other issues as well. Specifically, I thought his call for the restoration of America's image around the world was strong.
There are too many other points to mention here. We'll have more to come, but, in the meantime, make sure to check out the live-blogging over at Think Progress. Basically, McCain was full of it throughout the debate, and the good people at TP point out where and how.
But I'm not sure it matters much. The pundits are more or less split, from what I can tell. Chris Matthews at least pointed out McCain's meanness and smallness. But the rest of them are divided according to partisanship. David Gergen, somewhere in the un-partisan middle, seems to think it was more or less a draw, or at least that McCain needed to do better, given that foreign policy is his strength, or so it is assumed.
And of course it's not about the substance, it's about the perception. And the perception will be, I think, that both of them did okay.
UPDATE 1: My TMV colleague Elyas Bakhtiari notes that the early post-debate polls suggest that Obama won. I heard the same think on CNN not too long ago.
UPDATE 2: More on the post-debate polls:
-- CBS News: Poll Results Suggest More Uncommitted Voters Saw Obama As Debate Winner.
-- Time: What Sayeth the Undecideds?
-- TNR: Focus Groups, Undecideds For Obama (the Frank Luntz and Stanley Greenberg focus groups, along with a CNN poll).
Obama won "overwhelmingly," it seems, at least among undecideds.
UPDATE 3: Some additional reaction:
-- Kos: "The consensus seems clear: This was McCain's turf. He needed a solid victory, and he didn't get it. At best, it was a tie. And with the next debates focusing on economic issues, McCain will be in hostile territory. My interpretation of all of this is that Obama won via the expectations game, but was a draw on the substantive issues." (I still think Obama won on substance. It was a draw in terms of expectations and media perception.)
-- Marshall: "My take on this debate was that both candidates made their basic arguments clearly. They stuck to the points they're making on the campaign trail. Neither of these guys are powerful debaters but both held up well. I didn't see many real gaffes or mistakes... McCain didn't have any freak-out moments. But he did have that sneer and there did seem to be this thing where he was so contemptuous and angry at Obama that he couldn't get himself to make eye contact. I think we'll hear more about that. Angry, angry, angry. Part of the key here is that McCain is clearly miffed that he even has to debate or run again Obama. He thinks it's an insult."
-- Benen: "[I]f I were giving letter grades, I'd say Obama deserves an A-, while McCain might get a generous B." Overall, Obama won "on points."
-- Digby is blunt: "It's very hard for me to gauge this debate because to me John McCain is quite obviously a crazy, intemperate, nasty old bastard. He was sarcastic, contemptuous and patronizing."
-- Klein: Obama Wins Debate On Tactics and Strategies.
-- Ambinder: "The press will probably conclude that McCain did not fundamentally change impressions tonight. And that Obama held his own."
-- Todd: "[C]ount me impressed by both candidates... I wouldn't be surprised if the polls don't move much in either direction because neither candidate gave a reason why voters ought to stop listening and make their decision now."
-- Halperin calls it A- to B- for Obama.
UPDATE 4: CNN has the full transcript here.