Aside from the reliable yes-men at NRO and some of the other large conservative blogs, I am having a hard time finding anyone who thought that McCain did better than stay even with Obama tonight. The idea that McCain won the debate seems not to have crossed the minds of anyone not already deeply committed to stopping Obama, which suggests that McCain’s performance was worse than it might at first appear. As the “underdog,” as he constantly calls himself because he has been lagging behind all year, he had to expand his voting coalition beyond the true believers who think that his obsession with the “surge” is a serious foreign policy position. As a member of the incumbent party, he had to define himself as sufficiently different from the administration in both style and substance to lend credibility to his theme of reform. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals, but he achieved neither of them. As much as I hated Obama’s me-tooism on foreign policy, it would not have appeared to be me-tooism to undecided voters, but would have sounded like the statements of a hawkish liberal, which is what Obama is, and blunted McCain’s non-credible attempts to paint him as the second coming of McGovern. Both of them outlined terrible policy views, but Obama conveys them with a reasonableness and balance that McCain simply doesn’t have.
The problem that McCain had was that he could have given this performance back in January or earlier and he wouldn’t have had to say anything different, which was a good indication that he was just falling back on the same old tropes he always uses when talking about any of these issues. In addition to that, he made a series of mistakes and false statements from the trivial (bungling names of foreign leaders) to the much more serious (distorting Obama’s position on withdrawal), his combative style did not sit well with a lot of his audience and his contempt for his opponent–a key part of his political style–came through and worked to his disadvantage. It is impossible to separate this from the events of the last week. No one not already supporting him could have found McCain’s non-answers on economic and domestic policy persuasive, and after his flighty behavior in response to the financial crisis he had to demonstrate a sobriety and poise that he simply doesn’t have. Despite McCain’s efforts to portray himself as the underdog against a one-term Senator named Obama, which is actually pretty far-fetched when you think about it, Obama remains the challenger and benefits from anti-incumbency sentiment regardless of his accommodation with status quo views. McCain needed to persuade undecided and independent voters that it is worth gambling on another Republican administration as the current Republican administration goes down in flames after eight years of failure, and he didn’t get anywhere close to doing that. The worst thing about McCain’s performance is that it was just about as effective as he has ever been in a debate, but it doesn’t matter, because he has too much ground to make up and an opponent formidable enough to keep him from doing that.
Update: Jim Antle is an exception to the rule. No fan of McCain’s, he thinks the Republican nominee did better:
McCain simply pinned Obama’s ears back during the foreign policy and military exchanges. I don’t agree that his nonsensical campaign suspension and bailout participation aided this in any significant way. But I haven’t seen an old Washington hand mop up the floor with a smarmy, inexperienced but glib pol like this since Cheney kicked Edwards’s posterior in the 2004 vice presidential debate. Obama was on the defensive most of the time, and his “not true” interruptions were mostly ineffectual.
I don’t know about this. It comes back to the differences in style. McCain and Obama said almost identical things on foreign policy aside from Iraq, which leaves the undecided voter trying to discern between the presentation of these nearly-identical views. As a matter of style, I am at a loss as to how anyone could rate Obama the loser. On substance it is pretty clear to me that where McCain and Obama differed the latter was the winner. For instance, it seems to me that if I am the average undecided voter, it doesn’t make much difference whether supporting Musharraf was a good or a bad idea, but more informed viewers will know that after about 2005 or 2006 no one could really mount a credible defense of our unstinting support for Musharraf. McCain was not only flacking for a discredited Pakistan policy and tied himself to Bush’s last-ditch support for Musharraf needlessly, but he made a faux pas in identifying the last period of Pakistani civilian rule as equivalent to being like a failed state, which implies that he thinks Pakistan is once again a failed state (and, by extension, perhaps he favors another military coup?). Given the tenuous state of U.S.-Pakistani relations today on account of incursions and strikes into Pakistan, which McCain has criticized talking about but apparently does not oppose doing, this is the sort of thing one does not say out loud about an allied country even if it is true. By the same standard that he chastised Obama for his remarks on strikes into Pakistan, McCain is guilty of the same kind of blunder, except that it comes at an even more delicate time in relations with the country in question and effectively belittles the civilian government.
The regular viewer might not have picked up on the debatable claim that Pakistan was a failed state c. 1999, but I’m pretty sure there are regional experts who would dispute that description if the technical definition of failed state and the criteria of the Failed State Index are anything to go by. Actually, when people hear the phrase failed state they think, not unreasonably, of places such as Somalia and Afghanistan, so what McCain said tonight was that Washington should continue to provide copious amounts of aid to a state that is on the brink of imploding. Pakistan has a lot of problems and its state is weak in many parts of the country, but it simply doesn’t make sense to call it failed when it possesses an organized military, a semi-functioning administrative apparatus and a nuclear arsenal. It may be dysfunctional in many ways, but that is a pretty long way from being failed. Here is one definition of failed state:
A state that is failing has several attributes. One of the most common is the loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Other attributes of state failure include the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, an inability to provide reasonable public services, and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.
There are parts of Pakistani territory where at least part of this description might apply today, just as it could have been applied to parts of Pakistan for the last sixty years, but having relatively ungovernable or autonomous regions does not mean that the entire state is failing.
To the extent that you can call Pakistan a failed state, of course, you must call Iraq and Afghanistan under U.S.-backed governments the same things, except that they are even worse. Furthermore, under Musharraf’s tenure since they have started ranking countries Pakistan has become progressively worse. Foreign Policy‘s Failed State Index for the last two years has listed Pakistan at 12 and 9 respectively on the list of most failed states, so it is certainly not doing very well, but the gradual worsening of conditions in Pakistan vindicates skepticism of Musharraf’s rule rather than support for it. McCain’s lauding of Musharraf, based in no small part I imagine on Musharraf’s own fantasies of being an Ataturk-like figure for Pakistan, is obviously misplaced, and a well-informed audience would recognize the extent of his blunder. If I were an Obama partisan, I would be hitting McCain, ostensibly the great foreign policy master, on this for days to come. If McCain demonstrating his lack of understanding is what “pinning back” Obama’s ears means, I should think Obama would welcome more of it.
Second Update: For once, undecided voters and I have a similar reaction to something. From the Stan Greenberg focus group:
Both candidates saw their net favorability ratings rise over the course of the evening. McCain started off with a 22-point net and gained 9 points. But Obama went from a 6-point net favorability to plus-45, a shift of 39 [bold mine-DL] points that placed him higher than McCain at the end of the debate (69% versus 62%).
McCain was seen as the more negative of the two—by 7 points before the debate and by 26 points after. The audience did not like it when he went after Obama for being “naÃ¯ve” or used his oft-repeated “what Senator Obama doesn’t understand” line. When the two clashed directly in the second half of the debate, with Obama repeatedly protesting McCain’s characterization of his statements or positions, the voter dials went down. Voters appear to have judged McCain too negative in those encounters and Obama more favorably.
If improving one’s position with undecided voters is the real goal of presidential debates, it is hard to doubt that Obama helped himself much, much more than McCain did.