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.