Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Debate

Thanks for all the messages asking me what I thought of the debate. There's a ton of excellent coverage out there already, and I don't want to repeat the commentary you can find at The Daily Dish, Talking Points Memo, Eunomia, and lots of other places. So I'll offer just a few thoughts on matters I haven't seen touched on elsewhere.

I guess the first thing everyone wonders is, "Who won?" I'd have to give the evening to Obama, though not by a lot. My reasoning: Obama had to show that he was "presidential." I think he did. McCain, especially after the preceding week of bizarre drama queen antics, had to show he wasn't having some sort of a meltdown. I think he did. So both achieved their objectives, but Obama's objective was the weightier of the two because it's more likely to move the undecided middle, which at this point is all that really matters. McCain also had to demonstrate that he was vastly superior to Obama on foreign policy. Personally, I think Obama did better here, but even if you think McCain had the edge, foreign policy is supposed to be McCain's bread and butter, so an edge isn't enough.

I think McCain's refusal, or inability to make eye contact with Obama even once is going to hurt him a lot. Mostly people are interpreting his refusal to look at his opponent as contempt. That's a charitable interpretation, and regardless, not one that would attract undecideds to the candidate engaging in it. In fact, my take is that McCain was afraid to look at Obama -- afraid that if he did so, his emotions (fear, anger, whatever) would kick in and knock him off his game. However you want to interpret McCain's failure to make eye contact (or even to glance left at where Obama was standing), it's not going to bring undecideds his way, and will likely alienate many. Similarly, his constant "What Senator Obama doesn't understand" and related refrains must have felt good to him and will please people who plan to vote for him anyway, but likely came across at best as undignified and arrogant to undecideds.

McCain also had a tendency to say, "Trust me, I'll..." or "I promise, I'll...". After eight years of George Bush and in midst of an economic crisis, "Trust me" is a terrible way, indeed, a terrible phrase, to try to move the middle.

Substantively, I would have been disappointed if my expectations weren't already so low. If you think about the substantive differences that were aired, they were tiny compared to the possibilities. Both candidates seem to agree that Georgia and other former satellite countries should be admitted to NATO. Their differences over how and when are important, but not as important as the whole question of what NATO is for at this point, and the costs and benefits of admitting a country like Georgia. Similarly, they both agree that we should be free to make incursions into Pakistan, presumably without any word from Congress, and differ only on whether it's okay to say so out loud. Take a step back and you'll see that this is a hell of a small policy difference compared to, say, should the president be able to direct secret, unauthorized wars in the first place? And can clandestine wars not backed by overt policy even succeed regardless? Etc.

At one point Jim Lehrer asked the candidates if the current economic crisis would affect the way they would "rule" the country once elected. Given the Bush Administration's creeping monarchism, I would have liked one of the candidates to correct Lehrer on his odd diction. Neither did.

The biggest reason I think the evening was Obama's rather than McCain's comes back to brand. McCain was clearly at pains to bolster his Experience brand by emphasizing how long he's been around, how many foreign leaders he's known, how many countries he's visited, how many issues he's been involved with. All of which is fine and under the right circumstances could be advantageous. But as I've written before with regard to Hillary Clinton, this is the wrong marketplace into which to try to introduce a product branded as "Experience." McCain's people realize this, and as I wrote a few days ago, they're trying to respond to marketplace conditions by changing McCain's brand to "Change/Reform." But Change/Reform and Experience are dissonant brand claims, and McCain's own debate efforts undercut his effort to modify the brand. In this regard and in others, McCain is faced with the same conundrum, and making the same mistakes, that Clinton made during the primary. Here's what I wrote about Clinton's branding efforts back in January. The whole post applies equally to McCain today, but here's the main idea:

Part of what makes a brand powerful is internal consistency -- that is, consistency between the elements of the message, and between the message and the underlying product. Inconsistency, that is, dissonance, weakens a brand. In other words, for a brand to have power, its various elements must organically cohere. Volvo stands for safety. How would Volvo fare if the company attempted to include in its brand the idea of speed, handling, and thrills? Not well, because thrills and safety don't easily fit together in the consumer's mind. Reliability, on the other hand, is something that does cohere with safety, and therefore, conceptually, Volvo would have little trouble expanding its brand to make it mean reliability along with safety. But because Volvos are not, in fact, reliable, the extension wouldn't work -- there would be a disconnect between the brand and the underlying product...

But other things aren't equal, and experience isn't always the better brand to run on even when the claim to it is strong (note that George Bush Sr., the candidate of experience, was defeated by the young, inexperienced Bill Clinton in 1992). There's also the question of the suitability of "experience" and "change" as brands in the current market. And here, even if Clinton were the very embodiment of experience, she has the wrong brand for 2008.

"Experience" connotes establishment, status quo, the past -- not concepts likely to be favored in a market that has seen five years of catastrophic war in Iraq; the epic incompetence of the response to Katrina; a plummeting dollar; a nine trillion dollar national debt; etc. "Experience" suggests you might be part of the problems people now want fixed. By contrast, all the associations of "change" as embodied by Obama -- freshness, excitement, the new, the future -- suggest the product in question, rather than being part of the problems of the past, will instead be the agent for solving them.

Clinton has realized her "experience" brand is not nearly as well suited for the current market as Obama's "change" brand, and has therefore been attempting to make "change" a part of her brand, as well. You can see the results in her final pre-caucus Iowa television commercial. Note how many times she talks about how she'll be "ready on day one" -- to make "a new beginning." The message (which Bill Clinton has been broadcasting, as well), is that only the candidate with experience can bring about change. Logically, there's nothing wrong with this argument. But brands aren't driven by logic. They're driven by emotion, by unconscious associations, and the implicit question in the mind of voters ("if she's so experienced, why is she only getting around to changing things now?") cannot be satisfactorily answered by logic. In other words, "experience" and "change" are not elements that cohere under a unified, powerful brand. (For a hilarious take on the ultimate in Clinton rebranding, click here.)

At the same time, McCain's primary, and original, brand claim -- experience -- has been badly damaged by his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Here's just one of her recent performances:

Watch CBS Videos Online

(BTW, that claim about trade missions? Another... let's call it another falsehood.)

True, Obama has undercut his own core brand of Change by selecting Joe Biden, a six-term senator whose brand -- longevity, insider, experience -- is dissonant with Obama's. But my sense is that it's easier to yoke "experience" in the service of "change" than it is to do the reverse. Also, no matter who he adds to the ticket, Obama just looks and sounds like change (whether he actually represents such a thing is of course a separate matter). McCain, no matter who he adds, looks as though he's been around forever. Once again, in this marketplace, even if McCain hadn't done so much to dilute and distort his brand, he'd have the tougher sell. I think his debate strategy has made it tougher.


Dave Zeltserman said...


I'm an Independent and one of those undecided voters who is less than enthralled with both candidates. I think your comments are mostly (completely??) the wishful thinking of an Obama supporter. After the Palin selection and McCain's disgraceful grandstanding and drama queen antics regarding the (necessary) bailout bill, I was leaning more towards Obama and was hoping he would win me over in the debate. He showed me nothing. Mostly he was evasive in answering the damn questions (McCain also, although he made a little more effort), and the few times he did come close to answering a question his lack of insight was appalling. McCain is right--a US president can not sit face to face with Iran's leaders while they're making promises to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth--it legitimizes those claims. Obama's response was weasel-wording at it's worst--first saying how he will sit down with anyone he sees fit, then trying to backtrack that he would have his Secretary of state meet. His statement about Pakistan was total bullshit--Pakistan was a mess before Mushareff's military coup, and for better or worse he did more good to modernize and create a more moderate climate in that country than any other of their previous corrupt leaders, and I fear what's coming with him out of the picture. I found most of what Obama had to say, when you look past the sound bite, as naive or completely wrong. We never should've gone into Iraq--Bush should go to prison for lying to congress to get us into that inane war--but McCain is right, at this point we have to make sure there's a viable and working country left behind we leave or the results will be disastrous.

Again, as an undecided voter with allegiance to neither party, I couldn't give a damn whether McCain (or Obama for that matter) makes eye contact with his debate opponent--all I cared about were the answers. The debate left me decided that I'm not voting for Obama. I still find voting for McCain somewhat repellent, and will probably search out the 3rd party candidates at this point before making my final decision.

Barry Eisler said...

Dave, obviously I have a different take on the strengths of the candidates' performances and on the likely effect on undecideds, but your thoughts are right on point, and I'm grateful.


Anonymous said...

Wow. I am just amazed. Some people are scarily "undecided" this close to the election. And wtf have these people been doing for the last, what? 18+ MONTHS?! I just... can't take this shit anymore. I can't take people playing with my life. OUR lives! I feel if McCain wins, things will get a lot worse. Not to say that Obama is a Saint and everything will change over night, Angels will decent upon Earth and racism, sexism, our debt, etc. will be erased (would be nice though, huh? Lol) but upon doing research on both candidates for MONTHS, it amazes me some people are sitting on their hands, undecided, STILL! Unbelievable. If McCain wins this election, I really don't care what happens to America. Not to sound like a "terrorist" or even angry, but this country will get what's coming to them and I'll just shake my head like I HAVE BEEN DOING FOR THE PAST 8 FUCKING YEARS and say, "Oh well. You people FUCKING did this! All you McCain, undecided and non-voting people DID this so DON'T even THINK about COMPLAINING!" I am so disgusted right now. Bill Maher is right; Americans ARE fucking STUPID.

Oh, and nice piece by the way Barry. Now I need a cup of joe and a cigarette.

JD Rhoades said...

"a US president can not sit face to face with Iran's leaders while they're making promises to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth--it legitimizes those claims."

This does not logically follow. Israel itself negotiates all the time with people whose stated aim is their destruction.

We've needed a more grown-up foreign policy for a while now, and it's not going to come with Johnny Drama McCain.

Spy Scribbler said...

I'm so glad you noticed that slip, Barry. I missed that, and too many other people did, too.

The way Bush has changed the presidency and re-interpreted the Constitution is the number one thing I hate about Mad King George's reign.

I'd love reassurance that this is not a trend, but an eight-year aberration. This video does not give me hope.

Only 14% of the American public can name "freedom of assembly" as one of our freedoms. Only 56% could even name freedom of speech. 40% of the could not name ANY of them. This survey terrifies me. First time I read it I had real tears in my eyes. These aren't obscure laws! They are what our country stands for!

The Republican answer is to say they'll do anything to protect the country. That's such a great sound bite, because it insinuates that if you take any other stance, you're not willing to do what it takes to keep the country safe, and that if you don't bend the Constitution and chip away at our rights, we'll be attacked.

It's not a one-or-the-other choice as they present it. But if it were, I would choose to die in a terrorist attack any day over losing our basic freedoms.

And definitely over allowing the presidency to become a monarchy.

Barry Eisler said...

Bri, thanks for the kind words, but in the future, please post more to persuade and less to rant. Rants are entirely self-referential, and, like other forms of masturbation, are best done in private.


PBI said...


I came down about where you were on the debate. I thought Obama could have done more to set himself apart, but after the idiocy of "bittergate" and the like, I understand his restraint. (Speaking of ludicrous controversies, anyone notice that only Obama was wearing an American flag lapel pin? I wonder if the people who were so concerned about the absence of such a pin on Obama's suit in previous appearances will now go after McCain. Naaaah, I don't REALLY wonder that at all.)

I also share Bri's dumbfoundedness about undecideds. There is substantial difference between these two candidates, from issues to record to demonstrated judgment, even to what the election of either McCain or Obama does in the grand political scheme of things. But for those of you still struggling with your choice - and in light of comments from one of the various anonymous commenters on some of Barry's previous posts - I have put together the following in the hope of helping undecided voters make an informed decision:

* Why I'm Voting for Barack Obama, Part 1: Issues
* Why I'm Voting for Barack Obama, Part 2: Holistic View
* Why I'm Voting for Barack Obama, Part 3: Final Thoughts

The first post is long, but each successive one is shorter, and they are all copiously linked. Whether or not you agree with my analysis, I hope they'll spur the thought needed to come down on one side or the other!

Sensen No Sen

Anonymous said...


I read an article from politico some moments ago. Quite honestly, the shit storm the next president is about to walk into seems (if you can trust any political website) pretty daunting, probably so much more severe than any of us mortals can fathom.

The article basically states that the Bush hole is so deep and the dark cloud so ominous that either candidate is just about going to be hog-tied from day one, no matter what each preaches now, no matter what each promises, no matter what either believes.

I continue to feel that Obama is just not the man for the job at this point in time, considering the size of the National Screw up that has been the last eight years; an extreme liberal perspective and support system from and for an inexperienced senator just does not seem like a viable solution, now more than ever. That is not to say that McCain is the answer either. In many cases, a vote for a McCain is simply a vote against Obama.

That being said, after continued reading (and I am stuck reading and researching as I am down in S.A. taking in the Ecuadorean "Voting" for a new constitution/dictatorship) of how deep the hole is, I am ready to say that be it McCain or Obama, it probably won't matter. The problem will likely control and overshadow everything they want to do.

The sad thing is that at a critical moment that the country will need to be united (and not just bullshit politalk), it will be quite the opposite.

Finally, with all the rangling over presidential politics, the entire country has all but ignored the absolute uselessness of our Congress. Thieves and thugs from all sides, Barry. Harry Reid is a snake in the grass, as are hundreds of others on both sides. I certainly hope when the election is over, you use your forums, Barry, to pick apart all of them OBJECTIVELY but brutally.

Anonymous said...

Here is the article:

KSR said...

A few comments.

1) Chris: Yes, America’s problems are severe, real, and scary. The solutions will require deep thought, debate, consideration, and then decision. Judging only by their actions during the campaign, who do you think has the interest (capability?) in making decisions like this? Better said, who is impulsive (non-helpful to our current set of national crisis’s) and who is deliberative? You can say its six of one, have a dozen of the other if you can’t decide between the two candidates, but there are substantial and substantive differences between the two -- including how they make decisions. At this point in our country’s history, we need deliberation and deep thought. Not impulsiveness. Some, like Dave, may be turned off by the relative inexperience of Obama next to McCain. I hear that, but reject the argument. By that logic, I’d vote for the oldest American still working. They’d certainly have the wisdom and experience to be president, right?
2) Undecided’s: This never ceases to floor me. What does it take for someone to make a voting decision? What exactly are you waiting for? During the primary, my wife and I went back and forth on the Democratic side between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I really like how you simply couldn’t stump her on an issue. You bring up a topic and she could talk about that issue for hours. She has deep knowledge about almost every pressing issue of our day. But there wasn’t anything substantively different between her and Obama. In that situation (and for that reason), I *was* undecided. I didn’t care, ultimately who got the nod because they were both good. I’m a left-leaning American, so I waited until the primary was over, and now throw all of my support into Barack Obama. He didn’t wow me during the primary season, and he didn’t turn me off. But he is an immensely greater candidate than John McCain and there are HUGE differences between the two. Undecided’s need to stop looking to the candidates for answers and do a bit of introspection. What is it that YOU value and WHO best represents those values? Your decision is expected soon. ;-)
3) The Debate: Here is something to think about. Ultimately, the person who “won” the debates is the person who wins the election. John Kerry had greater debates than George Bush, but Bush won the election thus Kerry lost the debates. No matter what anybody says the next day. Barack Obama participated in something like 3 bazillion debates during the primary. He NEVER performed differently than he did last Friday night. He states his opinions matter-of-factly, is well versed, can’t be stumped, never loses control of his emotions, and has a nice smile. In short, there is no reason not to like him. As a nation of NASCAR watchers, we’re watching and waiting for the crash. Come on, let’s be honest. Wouldn’t it be dramatic if there was a riposte that knocked the other guy off balance? Wouldn’t it be great if one candidate slips so badly that we knew his campaign was toast? That will be an unlikely scenario. McCain is too experienced and Obama is too talented. Given that Obama, by definition, beat a wonderful debater in Clinton, and did so with the somewhat staid affect displayed last Friday, it is easy to underestimate the power of his style. He won’t WOW you (he WOWs you in big, large speeches) during a debate, but you will listen. You may even find yourself nodding in agreement!
For all the grief McCain is getting for trying to make fun of Obama for agreeing with him, the key lesson is being overlooked. Obama agrees with his opponent (aka: reaching across the aisle) and then suggests that the path his opponent took getting to that point is the wrong path. We can both agree that lowering taxes is good, but we can have completely opposite reasons for why. Don’t you laugh when you watch the ad the McCain campaign put out about Obama not being ready to lead because he agrees with his opponent? Does McCain normally chastise those who agree with him? Should Sarah Palin stop agreeing with McCain? Should Bill Kristol? Should Rush Limbaugh? The whole track makes me wonder about his faculties. THIS is an example of poor judgment and decision making.

Now…bring on the Vice Presidential Debate! That should at least be fun. I’ve never watched a debate with popcorn before. 


Anonymous said...

Barry, my only little disagreement with your post is where you say that Palin damages Mccain's experience label, yet you also state that experience isn't a good theme for this election. So couldn't his selection of Palin actually help?

But i agree about the debate. Mccain wouldn't look at Obama, and he kept on lecturing Obama about what he doesn't understand or how naive he is. But in reality Obama's answers made it look like Mccain was the one who really didn't know what he was talking about.

Spy Scribbler said...

Did anyone watch his interview with the Des Moines County Register on September 30, 2008, where he said "if I were dictator, which I always aspire to be."

Anonymous said...

Just curious, but what did you all think of Biden saying that Roosevelt addressed the nation on TV after the Stock market crash in 1929? I thought that was funny, seeing as Hoover was the president and TV was yet to be invented.