Judge: Bob Dalrymple
Scores: Obama 79 | McCain 78
Senator Barack Obama scored a narrow win in the second presidential debate.
McCain lost the economy section because of apparent contradictions in his case. He proposed ending the “spending spree” in Washington and with almost his next breath proposed a wholesale buy-up of bad mortgage debt. While it’s not impossible for those two policies to co-exist, he owed some explanation as to how, even if the format of the debate doesn’t encourage detailed analysis. If anything, Obama let him off the hook rather on that point. McCain was sharper on tax, and drew effective distinctions between his record on opposing pork-barrel spending and Obama’s record of voting through tax increases.
The question on energy and the environment generated more heat than light. Both candidates supported nuclear power, augmented by renewable energy sources. Aside from that, there was some wallpaper bickering from both. A tie.
Obama was more impressive on the heathcare question. Pointing out that the McCain tax credit (ostensibly designed to make healthcare more affordable) would be offset by a new tax on employer-based healthcare benefits put McCain on the back foot. His answer on whether healthcare was a right, responsibility or privilege was crisper than Obama’s.
Both responses to the question about how America’s economic problems would affect her peacemaking capabilities were disappointing. The question could have drawn some rich analysis on the interaction between the two elements. McCain briefly noted that strong military countries need a strong economy as well before ploughing into his line on Iraq. Obama didn’t even bother nodding towards the question before doing the same, although he did return to the cost of the Iraq war.
More than in the first debate, however, Obama landed effective punches on McCain’s support for the war and managed to portray him as someone who defaults too quickly to the military approach. Overall, Obama edged the point on Iraq. On defending Israel and strategy in Afghanistan, there was little between the candidates.
Arguably the best question of the night was on respecting Pakistani sovereignty while pursuing Al-Qaeda. Obama picked this issue to turn hawkish and advocate ignoring Pakistani sovereignty in the hunt for Bin Laden. McCain effectively demonstrated how America needed Pakistan’s help, and how Obama’s approach would hinder the attempts to pursue the terrorists. McCain demonstrated a superior command of foreign policy detail and won this point clearly.
McCain also won the question on Russia, again demonstrating what appears to be a stronger grasp of the issues at hand. Normally, answering a yes/know question with “maybe” is debating suicide, but in this instance it showed that he understood the wider implications of the answer and clearly conveyed the judgement required.
Both closing statements were equally strong. Obama’s allowed him to launch his effective optimistic rhetoric, while McCain was able to focus on his experience and devotion to duty.
In terms of Manner, I thought McCain was slightly more at ease with the town hall format of the debate. This format should allow candidates higher levels of interaction with each other, and while both candidates spoke eloquently the Arizona senator’s performance was just a little sharper.
Obama is a commanding public speaker, but McCain did a better job at tying his statements to the question that preceded them. He often gave a brief, one-sentence answer before continuing. His attacks were spikier, too. Comparing understanding Obama’s tax plans to nailing Jell-O to a wall was a good line. He landed a punch by saying his opponent had several tax plans, and that another one would probably be along in a minute. Obama defaults towards the lofty, and as such he didn’t land his attacks as effectively. That may well be good election strategy, but in an adjudicated debate you want to nail your opponents to the wall.
Overall, this was a very close debate. McCain shaded it on manner and was more impressive on foreign policy, once the Iraq question was out of the way. Obama did well on the economic crisis, while McCain’s argument had a few obvious flaws. The Illinois senator was more impressive on social issues, especially healthcare. I give the debate to Obama by the narrowest of margins. I could easily have gone the other way.