WHAT ARE THESE GUYS ON?

At times, this felt like a debate between a stoner and an alcoholic. Like in the first debate, it was frustrating to see Obama let McCain largely drive the debate and keep Obama on the defensive. But more so than in the first debate, I think if Obama seemed somewhat too subdued or even sedate, McCain came off as cranky, irritable, and nasty to the point of seeming unpresidential. McCain did himself no favors by cutting Obama off to bring up Bill Ayers an extra time, or with the endless sarcastic asides. And I think you look small when you whine on and on about how a civil rights hero was too mean in criticizing the nastiness of your campaign.

As a super-decided voter, it was aggravating to see McCain attack on the first Gulf War without Obama firing back about the current one, and more so to see Obama sounding defensive, reassuring tones about his tax plan without hammering McCain on why now of all times he would want to outdo George Bush in sending more money to the richest among us. That said, it’s not that Barack Obama doesn’t know how to go on the attack. It’s just that he’s winning, and his strategy in this debate – like the prior two but even more so – was to show himself a steady hand steering the ship of state. It’s hard to find someone not currently receiving checks from the McCain campaign to argue the Obama strategy isn’t working.

GOOD NEWS FOR JOHN McCAIN

After watching tonight’s debate, I have all kinds of good news for my friend John McCain (no, not “that one” – the other one): First, the Treasury Secretary just got the authority you want to give him to renegotiate mortgages – it was included in a bill signed last week you may have heard about – though that was after you un-suspended your campaign.

Second, if you’re all about your collaboration with Ted Kennedy and Joe Lieberman, the bills we used to call McCain-Kennedy and McCain-Lieberman are still out there waiting to be passed, and I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt those bills if you went back to supporting them again (though judging by the bailout bill, who knows).

Third, if you’re really against cutting taxes for rich people, there’s a man running for president right now who wants to cut taxes for the middle class instead – and it looks like he’s going to win!

Can’t say anything tonight changed that. Neither of these guys is a particularly good debater, and despite the hype, neither man took very good advantage of the town hall format tonight. But Obama was crisper and sharper tonight than either of them had been in the last debate, and he came off more comfortable and compelling and denied McCain another opportunity to change the race.

BIDEN AND PALIN DEBATE

Matt Yglesias observed earlier this week that Sarah Palin tends to do fine in situations where she can pivot from the question to her own talking points and a cobweb of faux-folksy generalities. She does poorly when the questioner tries to get her to answer the original question. Katie Couric did this. Gwen Ifil didn’t. So Sarah Palin got to respond to a question on Bush’s Israel policy by chiding Joe Biden for talking about George Bush. She got to answer the gay rights question by talking about her gay friends – though she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. She got to handle the economic questions by rhapsodizing about her pretend middle class lifestyle (she must agree with John McCain’s definition of low-seven-figures income as middle class).

Watching tonight’s debate should make it clear for anyone who wondered why the McCain campaign wanted so badly to limit the time each candidate got to talk and the time they got to interact with each other. Palin had shown in the past that she could do a fine job with rules like this; it’s unfortunate that the competent job she did tonight will draw attention away from the ways she’s embarrassed herself over the past couple weeks. Overall, she came off as more polished tonight, but Biden clearly knew better what he was talking about. Biden let himself get somewhat frustrated and flustered, but I think he managed to stay within the lines imposed on him not to sound mean to Palin, and the moments where he vented some of that frustration (“John is no maverick on the issues that people sit around the kitchen table worrying about”) were his best.

For two people who were hold up much of the week practicing, both Palin and Biden had a surprisingly hard time speaking in sentences that someone could read on a page and actually make sense of. Palin kept saying things backwards – global warming causes human beings – while Biden would get partway through one thought and then switch over to a different one.

It’s really maddening that this format allows Palin (and McCain last week) to lie about her opponent, never respond to the refutation of the lie, and then continue repeating it later on.

Biden seemed a bit too concerned with touting his own record rather than Barack Obama’s – he defended his bankruptcy bill that Obama voted against, and towards the end when asked about their accomplishments as a ticket used up his time talking about what Joe Biden had done. He was compelling talking about his experience as a single dad but stepped on his own moment a bit by suggesting Sarah Palin was being sexist.

If Palin really wanted to respond to a question about bipartisanship by just naming the line-up of GOP Convention speakers, shouldn’t she have included George Bush and Cindy McCain?

Call me an East-Coaster if you like, but I think when Sarah Palin leapt on Joe Biden’s explanation of his war vote and attacked him for nuance she sounded nasty, and when she spoke for “America” telling “Government” by name to stop taxing us she did sound like Tina Fey telling Russia to “go shoo.”

Note to the media: Sarah Palin appealed tonight for vigorous fact-checking of what each candidate said. Don’t disappoint her!

OBAMA AND MCCAIN DEBATE, ROUND ONE

Who won? I’d say scoring the debates on points, McCain came out somewhat ahead. But neither guy really distinguished himself, which is a victory for Obama: going into the debate more people wanted to vote for Obama, foreign policy is supposed to be John McCain’s best chance to get people to vote for him instead, and many of those people just needed Obama to hold his own and show himself a credible commander-in-chief, which he certainly did.

Neither man seemed really comfortable in his own skin, and each smothered some attack lines and one-liners by delivering them in a half-apologetic sounding way. But McCain, as we knew before, is a somewhat better debater. He sounded crisper, and he drove his lines of attack more directly and consistently. Obama went too far out of his way to emphasize where he agrees with McCain, and he didn’t draw on some of the more powerful lines of attack he’s leveraged against McCain in other fora (now that Iraq’s Prime Minister and George Bush have both come out for timetables, John McCain is standing all alone on this issue).

Mostly, Obama seemed eager to correct the record on particular points but once the debate moved from the economy to foreign policy, he offered a lot of good arguments against John McCain but not a unified theory of why he’d be a scary president.

Like George Bush in 2000 responding to Gore’s attack on his actual opposition to the actually-existing Patients’ Bill of Rights Legislation by spewing bipartisan happy-talk, John McCain did a good job of parrying criticism of his actual record with empty words about how he loves the veterans so much and they already know he’ll take care of them (even if he votes against improving the GI Bill) and “no one from Arizona is against solar power” (even though he keeps voting against solar power – maybe because he’s not from Arizona, he just moved there to run for Congress). If the media keeps letting them get away with that stuff, why wouldn’t they keep doing it?

As for the format, the much-hyped interactive format, to Jim Lehrer’s great consternation, mostly just made it clear that neither senator wanted to interact too much with the other. They didn’t respond to too many of each other’s attacks either.

Haven’t waded into the talking heads’ spin yet, but this seemed to me like a debate unlikely to distract attention for too long from the $700 billion bail-out that seems to be coming down the pike or the Bush-McCain record that got us into the mess. Not to worry: John McCain will cut down on our $18 billion in earmarks! (Does that include aid to Israel?)

WORLD’S SHORTEST POLITICAL QUIZ

Guess where you can read the following political history:

You know, it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.

Is it the pages of Reason Magazine? The declaration of some self-described “classicaly liberal” professor? Nope. Those words were spoken at last night’s Democratic Debate by the party’s frontrunner.

This is what people mean when they complain about the Clintons’ much-vaunted triangulation – although this particular argument is really worse than triangulation, in that rather than positioning herself between two bad boogeymen of the hard left and hard right, she’s just defining her politics against left-wing “big government” (didn’t her husband already declare it over?). And she’s defining “individual freedom” against “big government” too.

It’s not a mystery why she would do this. Conservatives have done an impressive job of convincing people over the past decades that more government means less freedom. That’s how they’ve peddled their attacks on the majority’s ability to legislate against plutocracy. It’s how they’ve pushed forward an agenda that leaves Americans less free – prisoners of fear of disaster, dislocation, and disintegration of their communities and their hopes for their families.

Democrats have not done a great job over the past few decades of framing the debate in a way that elevates freedom from want and freedom from fear and challenges the idea that we are more economically free if your boss can fire you for being gay or fighting for more money. Right-wing frames are powerful. That means contemporary candidates need to either co-opt them or challenge them. Which choice they make is telling.

THIS IS YOUR LIFE

There were a lot of spooky moments in the two presidential debates this week (“Mitt, you say you’ll protect us from the Hispanic invasion, but we caught you talking to Spanish-speakers! How can you defend yourself?”). The most spooky non-substantive part had to have been the moderators describing the “regular people” to themselves: “Your name is Josh Eidelson. You live in Sacramento. You have two siblings. You sometimes will eat a mango, dried mango, and mango sorbet in the same day. Is that right? And I hear you have a question for the candidates about taxes.”

It was a lot like those Sesame Street episodes where different kind of produce are on a talk show about how they were made.

The right has been heaping outrage on Senator Durbin for saying this Tuesday night about an FBI account of torture at Guantanamo Bay:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, this is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course. The President could declare the United States will apply the Geneva Conventions to the war on terrorism. He could declare, as he should that the United States will not, under any circumstances, subject any detainee to torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

It’s a shame that President Bush, Senator Frist, and the Right-Wing Blogospheric Noise Machine can’t summon the same level of outrage they’ve mustered over Durbin’s comments over the account he read in the paragraph before – or the countless others like it:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold…On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been ssince the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

You won’t find that paragraph, unfortunately, in the news accounts of the latest from the GOP’s manufactured outrage machine. And don’t hold your breath for a word from Bush or Frist this week to condemn the use of starving and freezing as interrogation techniques.

Instead, they’re accusing Senator Durbin of comparing all of America’s servicemen and servicewomen to Nazis, a charge as willfully inaccurate as Frist’s claim that Durbin called Guanatanamo a “death camp” (that’s what happens when you get all of your news from the (Washington Times). While Durbin’s phrasing is awkward, his plain meaning is clearly not that America is a Nazi state but rather that torture is a practice which better befits an oppressive regime than the United States. Leaving people restrained without water in oppressive heat to defecate on themselves, Durbin reminds us, is a violation of the values of this country. The obvious question, then, for Durbin’s critics is this: Do you see leaving people restrained without water in oppressive heat to defecate on themselves as as expression of the values of this country. Only a truly perverse definition of patriotism would demand, when we see unamerican crimes perpetrated under the American flag, that we change our values as a country to justify our behavior rather than the other way around. There’s no need to mention Nazis in order to make this point. But there’s no justification for reading it as a smear of the US as Nazi Germany or men and women in the service as Nazis.

The latter – the accusation that Durbin attacked Americans in the military – is even more insidious than the accusation that he attacked America itself. The implication is that anyone who criticizes a policy military personnel carry out is expressing scorn, distrust, or murderous rage towards every American in the service (this is analagous to the strategy Thomas Frank documents in One Market Under God of dismissing criticisms of business as expressions of elitism towards the American consumer). It’s a strategy we saw in the Presidential debates, as Bush implied that criticism of our Iraq policy showed a lack of faith in our troops in Iraq. It’s a strikingly tendentious rhetorical move and a pox on a discourse we desperately need to be having as a nation.

Most of all, pretending to hear criticism of the policy as an attack on the troops is a show of incredible cowardice. Faced with much-deserved rhetorical volleys, George Bush is essentially dragging American soldiers in front of him as an unwitting buffer between himself and the rest of the American people. In this rhetorical draft, American soldiers are called to act as a symbolic first line of defense against justified outrage over the administration. Never mind the number of those soldiers and their families who share that outrage, or who have no interest in being drafted -voiceless – into ideological warfare on behalf of the chickenhawks and policies which lead to needless death. Critics of torture and critics of war are taking on our leaders, not our troops. That those leaders, rather than defending their choices, make a show of rising to defend the honor of the troops just shows how little shame they have.

This is an election we should have won. This is an election we could have won if the candidate had been working as hard, and as smart, as everybody else that was trying to get him elected. We almost won it anyway. It could be that we did. But given Kerry’s unwillingness to wait as long as folks did in line to vote for him before saying, in the name of national unity, that their votes needn’t be counted, we may never know.

I think the most striking find in the exit polls was that significant majorities said they supported Kerry on Iraq but Bush on the war on terror. Funny thing is, main thing Bush has done in the name of stopping terror is ignore Osama bin Laden and create a terrorist playground in Iraq, while refusing necessary funding for homeland security. This says to me that Bush succeeded in making terrorism a question of character rather than of policy. Kerry was certainly savaged by the media in the same way Gore was, while Bush too often got a free pass. But Kerry failed for months to put out a coherent, comprehensible message on Iraq (as on too many other issues), and while voters rightly prefered an alleged flip-flopper to an obvious belly-flopper on the issue, I think he shot a lot of his credibility as a strong leader and he may have lost the rhetorical battle for Commander-in-Chief. His unwillingness to aggressively defend himself, especially from the vile Swift Boat Vet attacks, can’t have helped. What’s tragic, of course, is that Bush has flip-flopped far more, even on whether we can win the war on terror, and that the extent his policy has been consistent, it’s been stubbornly, suicidely dangerous. On this issue, as on every issue, some will argue that Kerry was just too left-wing, which is anything but the truth (same goes for Dukakis, Mondale, Gore). A candidate who consistently opposed the war and articulated a clear vision of what to do once we got there could have fared much better.

Then there’s the cluster of issues the media, in an outrageous surrender to the religious right, insist on calling “moral values” (as if healthcare access isn’t a moral value). Here Kerry got painted as a left-winger while abjectly failing to expose the radical right agenda of his opponent. Most voters are opposed to a constitutional ban on all abortion, but Kerry went three debates without mentioning that it’s in the GOP platform. That, and a ban on gay adoption, which is similarly unpopular. And while he started trying towards the end to adopt values language in expressing his position on these issues and on others, it was too little, too late. An individual may be entitled to privacy about his faith and his convictions, religious or otherwise but a Presidential candidate shouldn’t expect to get too far without speaking convincingly about his beliefs and his feelings (I’m hoping to get a chance to read George Lakoff’s new book on this – maybe Kerry should as well).

This election will provide further few to those who argue that Republicans are a cadre of libertarians and the poor are all social conservatives who get convinced by the GOP to ignore class. The first problem with this argument when folks like Michael Lind articulate it is that it ignores the social liberalism of many in the working class. There are others – like the economic breakdown of voting patterns in 2000, which would make David Brooks’ head explode because the fact is Gore got the bottom three sixths and Bush got the top. But few can argue that a not insignificant number of working class voters in this country consistently vote against their economic interests, and that at least in this election, they have enough votes to swing the result. Here too some will argue the Democrats just have to sell out gay folks and feminists to win back the Reagan Democrats. I think Thomas Frank is much closer to the truth: People organize for control over their lives and their environments through the means that appear possible, and the Democrats’ ongoing retreat from an economic agenda which articulates class inequality has left the Republicans’ politics of class aesthetics (stick it to the wealthy liberals by putting prayer back in schools) as an alternative. For all the flack he got over wording, Howard Dean was speaking to an essential truth when he recognized that working-class southern whites don’t have much to show for decades of voting Republican, and Kerry didn’t make the case nearly well enough. He also seems to have bought into Republicans’ claims that Democrats always spend the last few weeks beating old folks over the head with claims that they’ll privatize social security and forgotten that Republicans, in fact, will privatize social security if they can. So he let too many of them get pulled away to the GOP. Part of the irony of the debate over the tension between the left economic agenda and their social agenda, and whether being labelled with the latter stymies the former, is that as far as public opinion goes, I see much more reason for confidence that we’ll have gained tremendous ground on gay marriage in a generation than that we will have on economic justice. As far as policy goes, the next four years are a terrifying prospect for both, and for most things we value in this country.

Don’t mourn. Organize.

Quick take on tonight’s debate:

An underwhelming affair altogether. For a domestic policy debate, there were a fair number of non-domestic or non-policy questions. Kerry made the case for better homeland security well but didn’t go after Bush too strongly on creating a gigantic “tax gap” through tax cuts for the rich instead of paying for security for the rest of us. Reviving Bush’s quote about his lack of concern about bin Laden was a good move, and Bush’s description of the verbatim quote as an “exaggeration” was so obviously false even Fox News chose to air the original tape Kerry was quoting.

It was striking how eager Bush is to redirect all questions about the economy to the education issue, however dubious his record there. Funny how as a Republican he can get away with touting the spending increase as huge without drawing fire from the right and then turn around and charge those who push for more spending as tax-and-spend liberals. Kerry had a good line is saying the point wasn’t spending but rather results. But he seemed uncertain whether to tear into Bush on education, go back to the original question, or charge him with changing the topic – so he did a little bit of each. The politics are tricky, insofar as Bush is right that education’s key to improving living standards and growing the economy, and Kerry and most Americans agree. So making the case against Bush has to include his broken promises on education. But education doesn’t determine the health of the economy alone – taxes, trade, and the minimum wage are all crucial issues on which we deserve a real debate. Because as “compassionate” as re-training may sound, it offers more potential at the beginning of your career than towards the end. And because educated professionals are losing their jobs. And because we will never have an economy without a service sector or an industrial sector, and those jobs need to be dignified, living wage work. A minimum wage that’s half the poverty line if you’re supporting a kid is shameful. Also shameful is a government’s breach of faith with that parent and that child when it comes to funding education. By the way: Where was the right to organize in that debate? Why did unions only come up in terms of Kerry refusing to make promises to them?

On social issues, Bush was much more “wishy-washy” than Kerry, and more ambiguous than he should have gotten away with. Kerry’s failure to pin the Republican Platform’s call for a constitutional ban on abortion on Bush was a huge missed opportunity. His answer on abortion was better this time than the last debate though. On gay rights, Kerry’s saddled with his own bad policy of opposition to equal marraige rights, but at least managed to come down against the idea that gay folks just chose it. As for what they learned from their women, well, if the question had in fact been, as C-SPAN displayed it at first, “What have you learned about the women in your life?” it might have been more interesting.

Listening to last night’s Obama-Keyes debates, it seems clearer than ever how rhetorically effective, persuasive, and moving a consistent stance against the Iraq War can be, and how consistent with a clear commitment to defend Americans from real threats. Shame Kerry never got a chance to get some pointers from Obama on this…