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.

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?)

IN GOOD COMPANY

McCain’s new strategist draws on Barack Obama’s supposed smear of Bill Clinton as a racist to attack Barack Obama’s supposed smear of John McCain (The Original Maverick!) as a racist (seeing as it’s not as though the McCain campaign actually created an ad warning that Barack Obama would put a scary picture of himself on the dollar bill or anything):

“Say whatever you want about Bill Clinton,” Schmidt said, “but it’s deeply unfair to suggest his criticism of Obama was race-based. President Clinton was a force for unity in this country on this subject. Every American should be proud of his record as both a governor and president. But we knew it was coming in our direction because they did it against a President of the United State of their own party.”

This reminds me of one of the fun angles of a McCain-Romney ticket: The chance to make John McCain eat his words about Mitt Romney being a feckless French surrender monkey for using the word “timetable” once regarding Iraq.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that attacks candidate lodge against each other in the primaries don’t (with “voodoo economics” as maybe an exception, maybe not) come back to sting them if they end up on a ticket together in the general because voters recognize that that was then and the attacks were just opportunistic. But that’s why resurrecting old attack lines could have more sting when targeted against the attacker than the attacked. In other words, voters probably won’t think less of Mitt Romney when reminded that John McCain attacked him for harboring plans that “would have led to a victory by Al Qaeda.” But that reminder might affect how seriously they take McCain’s equally spurious attack on Barack Obama, at least if John McCain turns around and decides to puitch the man he once opportunistically attacked that way to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

BREAKING: BARACK TRIES TO RECONCILE HOPE, POLICY DIFFERENCES WITH OPPONENT

This article from the Paper of Record is just silly:

As Mr. Obama stands poised to claim the crown of presumptive Democratic nominee, he is, gingerly, fitting himself with the cloth of a partisan Democrat despite having long proclaimed himself above such politics. That his shift in tone was inevitable and necessary, particularly as Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, slashes at Mr. Obama as weak on Iran and terrorism, does not entirely diminish the cognitive dissonance.

As is unfortunately common with denunciations of partisanship in Washington, you get the sense reading Michael Powell’s Times news piece that not only does he see no need to tell you what he means by partisanship, he may not be so sure of it himself. Powell offers not one example of Obama’s post-partisan rhetoric against which we might judge his current stump speech (which is not to say there’s nothing in that rhetoric some of us – as ideologues more than as partisans – might take issue with). Instead, he just asserts that Obama promised to be a different kind of politician from the partisans we’re used to, and now he’s criticizing his opponent (without even giving him the benefit of the doubt!).

In other words, Obama promised to play nice, and now he’s being mean! And how:

“This is a guy who said I have no knowledge of foreign affairs,” Senator Barack Obama says, his voice hitting a high C on the incredulity scale, before he adds: “Well, John McCain was arguing for a war that had nothing to do with 9/11. He was wrong, and he was wrong on the most important subject that confronted our nation.” The crowd rises, clapping and cheering at this pleasing whiff of partisan buckshot.

Judging from the sternly disapproving tone the Times takes, you’d think Obama had said McCain’s daughter was ugly because she was the love child of his wife and his (female) Attorney General. But all the guy said was that his opponent had criticized him, his opponent was on the wrong side of an issue, and that issue was really important.

What does it even mean to say that this is partisan? Obama criticized co-partisan Hillary Clinton for backing the War in Iraq, so there’s nothing about Obama’s criticism that depends on party. Is Powell criticizing Obama for being overly issue-oriented? Or just for being overly critical of the man that everyone knows is the Most Principled Man in Washington?

But the article wouldn’t be complete without some criticism of the Obama campaign for disagreeing with the author’s criticism:

Mr. Obama’s advisers argue, gamely if implausibly, that he has not dipped his cup into a partisan well. “I don’t look at it as partisanship,” said Robert Gibbs, Mr. Obama’s communications director. “I look at it as a difference of philosophy.”

We expect this kind of silliness when it’s David Broder filling the editorial page with requiems for an imagined non-partisan past, or Unity08-backing celebrities sharing their heartfelt yearnings for politics without politics, or Howard Wolfson asking how Barack Obama can claim to support hope while opposing Hillary Clinton’s run for president. But on the news page we should really expect better.

CROSS THAT ONE OFF YOUR READING LIST

Remember that DoD document dump you just haven’t quite found time to read yet? The 8,000 pages of documents on how they prepped army folks to act as outside “military analysts” while laying out the White House line on Iraq? I’m sure you have all 8,000 pages printed out and stacked someplace prominent around the house, ready to read any time now. But have no fear – LWB friend (and one-time guest blogger) Alyssa Rosenberg is reading them so you don’t have to. Check it out:

So it’s downright creepy to read the anecdotes about women pushed in the DOD talking points released last week–especially when they’re interspersed with terse updates on the U.S. military’s attempts to rewrite its pathetic sexual assault policies. When it comes to exploiting imagery of Iraqi and Afghan women, the talking points read like a combination of Pippi Longstocking stories and Lifetime movies. In a July 4, 2004 briefing, a group of peppy Afghan schoolgirls buttonhole Donald Rumsfeld on their way to sports camp (can it get any more girl-power than that?): “After being introduced, young Roia wasn’t shy about sharing her feelings with the secretary. ‘Mr. Secretary, all the girls we are very, very happy and pleased to be here,’ she said through a translator. ‘We have one message for you … Please don’t forget the Afghan girls and Afghan women.’ Rumsfeld’s answer was simple, but carried a lot of weight. ‘We don’t,’ he said. ‘You can count on it.'”

META IS AS META DOES

Am I the only one who’d be more interested in hearing Joe Biden talk about his grand foreign policy strategy than in hearing him talk about how he’s talking about a grand foreign policy strategy? Or how nobody else is talking about a grand foreign policy strategy?

To be fair, he does helpfully remind us that countries do things that affect each other. I guess that’s where that Foreign Relations Committee experience really shines through. And he lets us in on another aspect of his foreign policy strategy: everybody knows that Joe Biden is really, really tough.

THE TIMES GIVETH, AND THE TIMES TAKETH AWAY

Reading the latest New York Times John McCain puff piece makes you wonder whether the Times and company only started pulling the guy down with McCain deathwatch stories so that they could have the pleasure of building him up all over again:

Between jokes, he is steadfast in his support for the present course in Iraq, his voice hushing to a near-whisper during paeans to the United States military. He is also prone to solemn monologues against the evils of torturing prisoners and the atrocities committed by “those thugs in Burma” against pro-democracy demonstrators, neither of which are top-of-the-agenda issues for most Republican voters. But they are important to John McCain, never mind the polls and focus groups, which are too expensive anyway.

Groan. Mark Leibovich also refers to “his campaign bus, christened the Straight Talk Express during his insurgent presidential campaign of 2000,” a weird use of the passive voice that could leave us with the idea that it was so christened by David Broder or Saint Peter and not by John McCain. I guess the myth of McCain is just more fun when he’s the underdog.

THE MCCAIN STRATEGY

A couple weeks ago, the Hotline started trumpeting polling showing that 5% more Americans support a surge in Iraq when it’s described as the “McCain strategy” than as the “Bush strategy.” Like most political polls, it shows that people think differently than they think that they think – that is, few people like to think that they would come down differently on otherwise identically described plans based on who they were named after. But as a demonstration of the power of the McCain brand, I’d have to say it’s underwhelming.

John McCain, bearer of the faith of our fathers, guide to a braver life, darling of ostensibly liberal journalists and avowedly partisan Democrats, can only lift the surge from 32% to 37%? Five percent? And that’s only three percent over the support it garners with nobody’s name stamped on it.

Clearly McCain’s plan to defend his hawkish stance on the grounds that Bush failed by being insufficiently hawkish is taking a beating as Bush takes a page from his book. Now McCain is left hoping that voters give him points for the courage of his convictions, that they believe that McCain would have done the surge way better than Bush, or that the surge will have Iraqis belatedly throwing rose petals at the feet of American soldiers. Of those possibilities, none is super promising. The first is maybe the most interesting, because it provides an interesting test case on the question of how voters weigh what your issue positions say about you versus how much they agree with yours.

Paul Waldman makes a strong case that McCain’s advocacy of campaign finance reform shows that, in Mark Schmitt’s words, “It’s not what you say about the issues – it’s what the issues say about you” – that is, that McCain’s advocacy of reform is a winner not because people care about the issue one way or the other but because it casts him as a man of integrity. It’s an important point that many Democrats with a congenital need to split the difference on issues of the day would do well to remember. On the other hand, the difference between campaign finance reform and escalation in Iraq is that most Americans aren’t hell-bent against campaign finance reform – that just don’t care that much about it.

As for what this means about John McCain’s general election chances, I still think he’s a formidable opponent, certainly more so than Mitt Romney or Sam Brownback. But as a raft of polls the past few days have confirmed, he can be beaten. Which is all the more reason for progressives to seek out a candidate who would do a great job governing the country.

THE GREAT ESCAPE

This Times piece features a silly and all-too common turn of phrase (emphasis mine):

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who joined the Senate in 2005 and thus escaped the Iraq vote that has come to haunt Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry, used the platform of Senate hearings to lacerate the Bush Iraq policy and affirm his own opposition to the war.

Sure, one of the annoying things about being an elected legislator is that along with your deliciously nuanced views on the issues of the day, you need to vote for or against bills you didn’t write yourself to say just what you wanted them to. But is there anyone who knew who Barack Obama was in 2002 who didn’t know his position on invading Iraq?

The man spoke at an anti-war rally and called the proposed invasion “dumb” and an “attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us.” Do Adam Nagourney and Patrick Healy really believe that he was hedging on whether or not the bill for the war should pass?

WHITHER THE GROWN-UPS?

Via Greg Sargent, a quote from Condi Rice that doesn’t inspire much confidence:

“”It’s bad policy to speculate on what you’ll do if a plan fails when you’re trying to make a plan work.”

Of course if it were a prominent liberal saying that about something liberal she were up to, it would prove how liberals are cloudy-headed and un-pragmatic and hopelessly ideological, right?

WWGD?

One of the Times’ blogs highlights this post from a member of the FireDogLake crew on the posthumous revelation that Ford had his doubts about the Bush Iraq strategy:

But when a reporter is in possession of information that is vital to the country, that might change whether we go to war or whom we elect for president, and the only reason for withholding the information is to protect the person interviewed from embarrassing his own party — well, there must be some other principle that applies, don’tcha think?

This argument is less than persuasive for a couple reasons. First, barring time travel, nothing said in July 2004 could have stopped Bush from invading Iraq in March 2003. Unless Scarecrow is predicting a future War in Iraq fought for lack of candor from Gerald Ford about this one. Or expecting Gerald Ford’s criticism of the War in Iraq to keep us out of a war with Iran.

Which brings us to the second problem with this argument: Gerald Ford doesn’t sway swing voters. If the man had endorsed John Kerry, that would’ve been big news. Expressing doubts about the Bush plan for Iraq is just what every respectable conservative neither working for George Bush nor running to succeed him nor named Rush Limbaugh was doing two years ago. That includes Paul Bremer.

Henry Kissinger, who many more folks credit or blame with the foreign policy of the 1960s than Gerald Ford, expressed concerns at least as strong about the Iraq invasion, and he did it before the invasion happened. And yet it happened anyway.

Of course the expectation that ex-Presidents should be elder statesmen in a way that doesn’t include weighing in on the performance of current Presidents is silly. And swallowing criticism of your party’s nominee in the months before the election is less than courageous (here’s looking at you, Christie Todd Whitman). And no story you broke four decades ago is an excuse to cozy up to the President for as long as he remains popular. But did George Bush ride to reelection on the imagined confidence of Gerald Ford? Not so much.