Judge: Jason Jarvis
Scores: Obama 81 | McCain 76
This debate avoided a large amount of the mudslinging that has taken place in the previous week but it did feature more sparks than the first debate. Obama won this debate for two reasons: a superior speaking style, and a better overall message than McCain. Should Obama end up winning the election, it is very likely that these two factors could account for his success.
From a style perspective, Obama was more confident and well organized than McCain. Obama regularly offered answers that were clear and numbered. For example, on the first question to both candidates Obama provided a four point plan for solving economic problems. McCain began by providing a list of generalized priorities and then introducing a new policy of having the government purchase bad mortgages. The policy, while new, was underdeveloped and not clearly explained.
An additional question which helped to draw organizational distinctions between the candidates was on budget priorities. The moderator, Tom Brokaw noted that the current financial realities mean that the candidates will have to make choices about which policies they pursue first when entering office. McCain answered the question first, and indicated that he thought it would be possible to pursue his agenda items simultaneously. His answer sounded vague, unrealistic and, at best, overly optimistic. Obama, in contrast identified energy as his first critical policy, followed by health care and then education. He provided detailed justifications for prioritizing energy, which were effectively related to the current economic crisis and the growing unemployment rate, as well as to national security. Here again, his willingness to organize his position clearly made it easy for the audience to follow his thoughts and come away with a coherent understanding of his vision for the country.
Finally, McCain’s rhetorical choices were often awkward, or even rude. At one point he referred to Obama as “that one” when discussing their voting records on policy issues. He also made several attempts at jokes, which came off poorly. In discussing tax cuts, McCain suggested that Obama’s tax plan was as hard to nail down as jello. Unfortunately for McCain it wasn’t funny and was soon followed by a specific response from Obama about what his tax policy would be.
Substantively, Obama provided a clearer set of policies and had a more consistent strategy. The goal of Obama, executed effectively, was to tie McCain to the failed policies of George Bush. Over and over Obama returned to this theme. From the economy, to problems in Afghanistan, Obama referenced the Bush policies and McCain’s support for them. McCain has yet to challenge this claim in an effective fashion in any debate, despite appeals to his reputation as a maverick. Despite his claim that he is a reformer he was unable to counter this challenge in a credible way. As Obama made this charge he was quite effective in suggesting that a change in direction will help to alleviate these problems.
The area where McCain shined, unsurprisingly, was on foreign policy. His discussion of Israel was concise and direct. He was particularly effective in his discussion of Russia and Obama agreed with McCain on this issue. When asked what the Obama doctrine regarding intervention would be, Obama was vague and not particularly confident. However, Obama was notably better in the second debate on foreign affairs. His discussion of Pakistan was very well done and he was very aggressive in countering the notion that he is too inexperienced. The discussion of Afghanistan was notable, because it marked the first and only, time that McCain gave Obama credit for an answer when he indicated that he agreed with Obama about tactical changes that need to be made in the country. Undoubtedly, this area is McCain’s strength and to his credit, he sounded like a strong leader with a clear vision of how he would lead America in dealing with the rest of the world.
McCain’s strength on foreign affairs stood in sharp contrast to his discussion of domestic affairs which often seems scattershot and disconnected. Obama’s discussion of health care was detailed and powerful. When asked if it was a privilege or a right, Obama was quick to respond that it was a right. He related his answer to very powerful choices that people have to make about care for family members and his discussion of his own mother, who died at 53 was powerful and touching.
Obama wins this debate due the consistency of his message and his ability to relate to the audience. His structure and manner gave him a comfortable win. In many ways this debate reflects the larger campaign up to this point. McCain needs a game-changing issue if he hopes to win. So far, such an event or issue has not surfaced and time is running out for the McCain campaign to catch up.