Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Round One a Draw, Two Rematches to Follow

By Shawn Healy
Senator John McCain did indeed show up for Friday's first presidential debate with Senator Barack Obama at the University of Mississippi, and the two combined to produce a substantive discussion of both foreign policy and the pending federal bailout of Wall Street.

Both seemingly struggled at the outset to illustrate their own plans for the looming credit crisis, but this is to be expected given that they have spent the better part of the last two years on the campaign trail and away from their responsibilities in Washington. An apparent deal between the Bush Administration and Congress was struck early yesterday morning, with the House poised to pass the legislation as early as today, followed tomorrow by the Senate. Both candidates have voiced lukewarm support for a compromise they played little role in precipitating.

Without doubt the state of the economy will play a pivotal role in this election, and we'll continue to watch from afar as the candidates circle the country in search of a narrative than resonates with voters in swing states. Thus far, echoing my post on Friday, such a course has been elusive for McCain and Obama, and the first debate did nothing to quell these concerns, placing an even higher premium on their second and third square offs. The second debate is structured in a town hall format with questions emanating directly from the audience, and the third is more traditional, with a direct focus on the economy and domestic issues. To date, Friday's performance included, the candidates' grade on what CNN calls "Issue #1" is largely incomplete.

Friday's debate centered largely on foreign policy issues, and by my account, McCain offered a more compelling vision of how he would act as commander-in-chief than Obama. This is not to suggest that the junior Illinois senator suffered a dismal performance, for in many ways he exceeded expectations, but he was on the defensive for most of the evening and failed to deliver a knock out punch to his vulnerable opponent. Indeed, outside of their clear differences on Iraq and whether or not the U.S. should engage in face-to-face diplomacy with rogue nations, Obama often seconded McCain's offerings, offering minute qualifiers.

McCain at times lectured Obama for his "naivete," and Obama was clearly knocked off stride at several instances. While McCain kept his cool and smiled even when attacked, Obama appeared angry at moments and often attempted to interrupt his opponent in mid-sentence. Obama's attempts to tie McCain to President Bush opened the door for McCain to highlight their differences over the years. While discussing the Russian-Georgian conflict, however, McCain left Obama's blunder at the time on the table, failing to point out his call for UN Security Council action when Russia holds a spot and veto power.

As a whole, many experts judged the debate a draw, though some, like the Des Moines Register's David Yepsen, agreed with me that McCain was the decisive winner. On the other hand, among viewers who watched the debate, Obama was the apparent winner, although CNN's poll oversampled Democrats. This taken into account, perhaps viewers also scored it a draw. I am also skeptical that Friday's audience was as large as those we will likely see in the ensuing contests given that it landed on a weekend. The final three contests, beginning with the vice presidential debate on Thursday, all land on weeknights. My guess is that committed partisans and politicos tuned in on Friday, and larger numbers of independents and undecided voters will watch in the next two weeks, offering the candidates better chances to change minds.

It may be too early to tell whether or not Friday's performance translates into bump in the polls for either candidate, but Obama is surging according to most recent national surveys. Thursday's match-up between Delaware Senator Joe Biden and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is laden with intrigue and could stand as the so-called "game changer" that Friday clearly wasn't. Next week's presidential town hall will be equally important, followed by the farewell debate the following Wednesday. With 36 days and counting, each public impression that candidates offer assumes a greater degree of importance. The stakes could not be higher for what is truly "must-see TV."


Blogger Mark Pettigrew said...

In all fairness to Obama, McCain interrupted Obama several times during the debate, so both candidates were guilty of doing that. But I'm not sure that I could refrain from interrupting my opponent if he said something with which I strongly disagreed. Sometimes, if one waits until the person is completely through, the moment for an effective rebuttal has already passed, and people have forgotten what the guy being rebutted said in the first place. No one likes to be perceived as rude, but sometimes it can be necessary in order to make one's point.

In terms of demeanor, I thought that Obama seemed smoother and more confident than McCain. Yes, McCain smiled a lot, but it was clearly a forced smile. It seemed as if McCain was struggling not to lose his temper, as he's been known to do. But that doesn't necessarily make him a bad choice for President. I'd much rather have someone who occasionally gets angry for good reason (without throwing a tantrum) than someone who laconically backs and promotes all the wrong policies.

McCain will never usurp Reagan's historical reputation as "the Great Communicator," but frankly, I'm less interested in style than in substance.

Regarding McCain's comments about the need to leave Iraq as victors, when the job is complete, I thought that Obama's response was pretty lame. He wants to revisit the past, and to imply that McCain's overly optimistic past predictions about the war prove that McCain isn't fit to be President. But even if it can be argued that McCain's earlier judgments were less than flawless, the same thing could be said of most Democrats who supported the Iraq war.

In any event, that's no longer the issue. The issue is whether or not we ought to stay in Iraq until the job is done, as McCain argues, or leave at a predetermined point in time regardless of the chaotic and unstable mess we might leave behind, as Obama seems to desire.

As someone who received official status as a Conscientious Objector in the early 70's, I could hardly be accused of being a warmonger. But if America is going to go to war, then it seems to me that it's an insult to the many soldiers who fought and died in that war (and to the American taxpayers who financed the operation) to leave before victory is achieved, as long as victory is achievable.

Also, McCain tried to make a very important point which seemed to go completely over Obama's head. McCain correctly pointed out that it was precisely on account of the fact that America withdrew from Afghanistan before the job was done that the Taliban and Al Queda were able to take over that country, ultimately leading to the events of 9/11. So waiting to leave Iraq until victory has completely been achieved is not just a matter of national pride. It's also a matter of national security.

Most of the people in the audience at the Chicago History Museum were obviously rooting for Obama, which was hardly a surprise in light of the politically biases which are predominant in Chicago. But I thought that McCain did much better than the audience responses would have suggested.

It has truly been said that those who don't learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. As a Viet Nam vet, McCain doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of the Viet Nam war by leaving Iraq before the job is done. Even though I strongly disapprove of war in general, I think that he's absolutely right. He's also right when he claims that Obama lacks the maturity and good judgment to sit in the Oval office.

12:59 PM  

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

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The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

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McCormick Foundation

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McCormick Freedom Project

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