TOPICS > Politics

Contention Permeates Final McCain, Obama Debate

October 15, 2008 at 10:30 PM EDT


JIM LEHRER: We have some initial reactions here, as we watch the senators greeted each other to applause. We’ll get some reactions here from syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

First, the question, David, is, did McCain do what he had to do?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Well, we’ll wait for the verdict from Joe the plumber. I guess he’ll tell us who won this debate. Everything centers on him.

I guess I think not. I thought he landed some blows, but the underlying theme of this whole campaign, Obama mentioned it’s been 20 months, has been Obama’s temperament. The man is calm. The man is unflappable.

It’s like a redwood forest. You can lob some cannon balls into it, and McCain lobbed some balls into it. I thought he scored some points, but it doesn’t seem to affect the forest.

And for a country that’s looking for reassurance — something change, but something presidential — Obama delivered that again.

I think he sometimes elides tough issues and all that, but he — he doesn’t change. And I think that’s the fundamental source of comfort for people who are looking for a candidate.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see the same thing, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: I guess I do, Jim. I don’t think that it was, in the parlance of this year, a game-changer that we were looking for, that John McCain was looking for. He was more aggressive, I think, and surprisingly aggressive, given the format of sitting at the table.

JIM LEHRER: John McCain was?

MARK SHIELDS: John McCain was. But I will say about Obama, he did not sit on his lead, I mean, that he did engage, he did rebut, he did respond. And I think that worked for him tonight.

And there is, there is just an eerie almost coolness about him. You know he can move people. You wonder what’s going to move him. I mean, he’s just really remarkable that way, and at a time of crisis.

I think they both were convinced at some point that there was an acute scarcity of new ground, because they broke very little. I mean, we went back over and we heard the point — I reviewed the transcript from the first debate at Oxford — and I got word for word on the business tax in Ireland being 11 percent and 35 percent, you know, 95 percent of people who won’t get a tax cut.

I did think that Obama had a prepared answer this time where he’d never broken with his party before. And I thought McCain had a far better answer than he’d had before about, if you want to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.

I thought McCain’s best moment of the evening was on the judges, when he said, “I voted for Breyer — for Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg”…

JIM LEHRER: Justice Ginsburg.

MARK SHIELDS: … “because I thought they were qualified.”

JIM LEHRER: What did you think the high points were? Or do you have a list?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess I have some low points. I mean, again, I think it’s overall demeanor that people are looking for. McCain seemed tight and, frankly, hard to live with for four years. Do you want this man on your TV sets? Whereas Obama did seem somebody you could live with.

I thought the low points were on the economic situation, where each repeated the little ideas they proposed over the past week, but I wouldn’t say either gave us a big picture, where we are, where we’re headed, what the long-term impact is going to be. I thought they got lost in their little promises.

And then, on health care, there are other things on health care costs that are going to feed into this.

One of the things I was looking for in this debate was — Bob mentioned the deficit. How much should we worry about that? Are we going to just forget about it over the near term, because we need to get out of the recession, or are really we going to cut back because of the long-term fiscal crisis?

Got no answer. Both of them elided that subject. So I guess I found myself a little frustrated on those things.

Getting to know the candidates

Clarence Page
Chicago Tribune
I thought tonight Obama firmed that up. At the same time, John McCain looked like a better debater. He seemed to be consciously avoiding the pitfalls that people criticized him before, being too detached, not looking at Obama, not engaging him.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let's go into the mix now -- let's bring into the mix now presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss; the Hotline's editor-in-chief Amy Walter; and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.

Michael, did you share David's frustration over some of the answers you heard?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: A little bit. But I think my overwhelming feeling, Jim, is that, if Barack Obama is elected president 20 days from now, his performance in all three of these debates is going to have a lot to do with the reason.

Because, you know, you go back to John Kennedy in 1960 or Jimmy Carter in '76, Bill Clinton in 1992, these were candidates who were not very well-known to the American people at the beginning. They were challenging people who were the candidate of the party that owned the White House.

And they used these debates, one by one, to basically let the American people feel comfortable with them, with the idea of them as president. A lot of Americans who may have agreed with Barack Obama were nervous about him before these debates began; I think there are very few people tonight who will feel that way.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Clarence, what do you think? Was comfort a very important factor, not only tonight, but in previous two debates, as well? You agree with Michael?

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: I think it was very important. The very first debate was mostly on foreign policy. The fact that Barack Obama held his own against John McCain on that topic, which McCain naturally would have an advantage of experience, that was very important for establishing Obama as being presidential.

The second debate being the town hall format, where, again, McCain was expected to do really well, Obama was the one who looked more comfortable with it and looked even more relaxed and fitting of that presidential role.

I thought tonight Obama firmed that up. At the same time, John McCain looked like a better debater. He seemed to be consciously avoiding the pitfalls that people criticized him before, being too detached, not looking at Obama, not engaging him.

He talked to him directly, talked to him by name, not some phrase like "that one" and that sort of thing. And he, both before and after, seemed more cordial and engaged in the debate.

So I would say, I think this was not a game-changer, but for each of them I think they came away a little bit stronger.

Antagonism favors a cool Obama

Amy Walter
The Hotline
I think there were a lot of Republicans out there saying, 'Where was this John McCain a couple of weeks ago, that he came out of the box very aggressively, very strong, certainly did not get on his heels at any point during the back-and-forth?'

JIM LEHRER: Amy, how do you see it? Both of them came out a little stronger?

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: I think there were a lot of Republicans out there right now saying, "Where was this John McCain a couple of weeks ago, that he came out of the box very aggressively, very strong, certainly did not get on his heels at any point during the back-and-forth?"

At the same time, you know what's interesting is we have sort of been going back and forth throughout this campaign about this election really being more than anything a referendum on Barack Obama.

And I think McCain continued that focus tonight, where it was not as much about what John McCain would do as president as much as what Barack Obama wouldn't do or, in this case, what he would do is raise your taxes or what he would do is have an agenda that is not very reform-oriented, because he's been so -- he's towed the line so much with Democrats.

And if that's going to be the bar, which is, you're saying to voters, "All right, this is a referendum on this person over here, rather than making it about me," as I agree with what everybody else has been saying tonight, which is, when that person comes across very cool, very collected, very competent, I think, in many ways, he helped them answer that question.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, what did you think about the personal stuff that finally came up with Bob Schieffer's question about the -- the high-road question, we will call it? How did you think that went for both of them?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think John McCain really hurt himself, because one feature of these debates is that, when a candidate really tries to go on the attack, especially in a personal way, almost always hurts himself.

Remember when George H.W. Bush, who was a rather gentlemanly guy, out of frustration against Bill Clinton began saying, "I just don't know about a guy who demonstrated on foreign soil against the United States, made this mysterious visit to Moscow," it only diminished him, made him look almost desperate.

It didn't help Bob Dole in 1996 when he tried to do the same thing in the debates against Bill Clinton. So one of the things about not only these debates, but especially this format where you have the two of them sitting at a table, I just don't know how a candidate can bring up things like that, that are pretty negative and antagonistic and, in a way, not hurt himself with a lot of voters.

JIM LEHRER: Clarence, how about the fact, though, that this was brought up by -- not by John McCain, it was actually brought up by Bob Schieffer as a subject, something to talk about. How did you feel that -- do you feel McCain hurt himself?

CLARENCE PAGE: Well, he seems to be kind of stuck in first gear with that attack strategy. It has helped him firm up his base, but it hasn't helped him with the swing voters he needs right now, when we're less than a month until Election Day.

And I think it was good kind of that Bob Schieffer brought it up, because, let's face it, a lot of us were wondering why McCain didn't bring it up during the second debate, since he had been out on stump days before and then days afterwards, but he avoided it during the debate itself.

And I know a number of Republicans have been complaining to him, you know, "Why don't you bring it on? Hit him with Ayers; hit him with Reverend Wright."

And Reverend Wright is somebody that McCain has consciously avoided for reason of his own. Maybe he doesn't want to get involved in a racial controversy, whereas Ayers is, you know, a '60s radical, anti-war. McCain feels more comfortable with that.

But still, you know, Obama has treated it as something that's just not that important of an issue. And right now, with the economy going the way it is, it hasn't been that important. So I think both of them kind of put it to rest, in a way.

Attacks make no traction on Obama

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Amy, you and your colleagues at the Hotline looked at all these polls. You look at these polls every day, deep down inside.

Do you agree with Clarence that, up until now at least -- and now, you can include tonight, if you'd like -- but up until now, just based on what you have studied, there has been no impact, serious impact against Obama as a result of these attacks on him?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think that's been very clear. What's interesting is to see just how high Barack Obama's approval ratings have been throughout this process.

Now, to be sure, John McCain, even as he's gone on the attack, he's lost a little bit of his -- in terms of his approval ratings. His disapproval ratings have gone up a little bit, but not that much.

These are still -- this is quite remarkable. These are still two men, three weeks out from the election, who have approval ratings in the 50s. That is not something that we have seen in recent years.

Normally by this point, the two candidates have gone after each other in such a vigorous way that they're usually at 1-to-1 ratio, just the same number of people who feel favorably as they do unfavorably.

I think fundamentally, to me, what's fascinating about this campaign now and going to the polls for a second is the number-one issue in all of the polls, obviously, is the economy. It's almost 70 percent, in our latest poll, voters picking this as their number-one issue.

And what I was surprised about -- it was the number-one issue out of the box that Bob Schieffer put out there. And these two candidates do have these specific plans that they've been talking about, and yet we heard very little about that.

And I think for so many voters who are saying, "I just watched what happened on the stock market today. I really am concerned about the overall economic situation," neither of them spent a whole lot of time trying to go into and define and defend what they were going to do going forward.

Yes, we heard about some of the mortgage issues that John McCain is talking about, as we heard again about Barack Obama cutting taxes for 95 percent of voters, but not really plowing into new territory, which, quite frankly, had been spending the last couple of days doing.

JIM LEHRER: As Mark said, there was more the old talking points on tax cuts, his plan, their plan, ba-ba-ba, right?

AMY WALTER: Exactly. There wasn't -- and, as I said, if this were a different time, it seems very typical for a campaign that wasn't taking place in the midst of historic up-and-downs on the market and a sort of brand-new territory that we're all going to be getting into next year, so I was -- I really was somewhat surprised that they did not take this opportunity to really say to voters out there, "We know this is a big concern from yours. Let me tell you where I'm coming from."

JIM LEHRER: Amy, I promise never to ask you another question that has ba-ba-ba in it, OK? Thank you.