Obama Ekes Out Debate Victory on Points

Having watched the first presidential debate a couple of times now, and having reviewed the transcript, I am inclined toward the opinion that Sen. Barack Obama secured an unexpected victory over Sen. John McCain – however he won it on points, not by knockout. At no point did either candidate completely overwhelm and dominate any single foreign policy issue, but rather it came down to the question of stylistic exposition. This is very interesting for several reasons. Firstly, the foreign policy debate was meant to be the one for McCain to dominate, and Obama’s unexpected competence in this area will require some major adjustments from the Republican campaign to get some points back in the upcoming two debates. I need not even remark upon the predicted outcome of the vice presidential debate, as there are even some rumors among Republican operatives that I know talking about pulling Sarah Palin off the ticket. I don’t attribute much credibility to that rumor, but the fact that people are even quietly talking about it doesn’t give one much confidence for the outcome of the debate. With regard to Russia, both candidates were exceedingly strong and critical.

This was expected out of McCain, who up until now had owned the Russia narrative throughout the campaign. But I for one was disappointed only to hear him repeat his time-tested soundbyte, instead of giving us a new post-war perspective: “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes, and I saw three letters, a “K,” a “G,” and a “B.”What I wasn’t sure about was whether Obama was going to find himself backed into an apologist position simply to differentiate his views on Russia policy from those of McCain, as we have seen these arguments become evident among those in the liberal blogosphere. However let’s not forget that U.S. partisanship and Russia really don’t mix well, as we can find the exact same excuses for Putinist authoritarianism on the right wing.Intelligently, Obama didn’t take the bait, and voiced his strongest criticism of recent Russian actions to date: “It is absolutely important that we have a unified alliance and that we explain to the Russians that you cannot be a 21st-century superpower, or power, and act like a 20th-century dictatorship.“Every newspaper is carrying the same story about the debate today – that Obama’s principle goal was to tie McCain to the Bush administration, and in terms of Russia policy, this is a very damaging taint to carry indeed. There’s no doubt that McCain had his moments, especially in dismissing Obama’s “misunderstanding” of Kissinger’s comments about meetings with rogue leaders (funny how the Kissinger pro-Russia roadshow went incredibly silent right after the war). But in general, McCain’s strategy to play to the television audience and dodge questions didn’t seem to sell well. It will be interesting to see how each campaign makes its adjustments for the next debate, but for now, it strikes me that Sen. Obama eeked out his victory by just a few points. However, let’s all remember that this is exactly how John Kerry started out also…