Thursday, October 16, 2008

Live From Long Island

There's something disturbingly onanistic about enjoying blogging an event while not actually enjoying the event. Still, as it appears to be the only way I can haul myself through a presidential debate, here I am again in the company of the Channel Formerly Known As News 24.

Or rather I would be, except my digibox for some reason can't pick up one of the BBC multiplexes so I can only get analogue BBC2 and in one of those engineering works during major sporting event moments, BBC2 is giving us a replay of Ding Junhui vs Graham Holt and not BBC News as it normally would be now. What I have, therefore, is Sky News, which hopefully isn't going to piss me off by cutting to the ads in due course.

The table format feels rather like a boxing match in a football stadium, with the action dwarfed by the surroundings. There's a fundamental dichotomy in the format; the candidates are closer than they've been before, but the table is in the way to prevent them taking swings at each other. Again, right from the start there's a difference in style, with McCain talking to the format and Obama talking to the camera.

Unsurprisingly McCain ducks the first exchange when Obama pins his plan to help homeowners as another bailout to the banks, instead leading with the story of Barack and the plumber from Ohio. That exchange reminds me once again of that great Bartletism; “That's the problem with the American Dream, everybody's preparing for the day they're going to be rich.”

Still, it's a good exchange to have, because it really is about the fundamental questions, about trickle-down versus trickle-up. It's a debate I'd kind of like us to have too; redistribution is fine if it allows, as Obama suggests, Joe the Plumber to be able to start his own business sooner. That sort of economic change matches the political change we as Lib Dems are looking for.

In the first of what may be many recommendations tonight, if you haven't seen Simon Schama's new series yet, catch it on iPlayer. The idea that the American Dream is finally facing the reality that there is a limit to the resources the USA can provide is critical to the answers we're seeing to question two, with Obama tightening the belts and McCain looking for new ways to scrape the barrel.

Interesting that McCain again brings up the projector in the planetarium; if my first refutation of that wasn't enough, consider that other West Wing classic, the four-hundred dollar ash tray. On the matter of balanced budgets generally, McCain brings up the spending freeze in New York; I'd refer you to my favourite political columnist, Tuesday Morning Quarterback, for an intriguing look at why balanced budgets may not be the Washington problem you think.

The copycatting here is quite breathtaking; McCain sledgehammers in with an “I am not Spock” moment, then Obama responds listing the rows he's had with the oft-forgotten core vote of the Democratic Party (the teachers unions and environmentalists).

Rarely has the answer to a question been so long when a simple no would suffice. Asking them to say what the ads have said to their faces is absolutely right, but the answers are unsurprisingly evasive on both sides. McCain calls Obama out again on the town hall meetings, which works less well after he failed to kick butt in the one we had. He also keeps going to the amount of money spent, which is fine if people care about the nuances of electoral law but how likely is that? All raising the money suggests is that Obama has raised more money than anyone ever, which at some point has to reinforce the faith so many people have in him.

The result is a pox on both houses, though my feeling is that Obama's answers are more statesmanlike and more about the culture and the politics, rather than the details of the attack ads. It might work for McCain, but Obama got to make a full defence and the discussion was about McCain attacking Obama and not the other way around. Again, not being a voter it's difficult to know.

The questions continue to be excellent; “why is your running mate better than his?” is wonderfully playground. Obama's answer is entirely about Biden, with not a hint of kicking Palin while she's down. Most interesting is how McCain opens with “America has gotten to know Sarah Palin”; hang on, the central plank of your campaign is that we don't know Obama after two years of a campaign and now you're saying they know Palin after two months? While we're on her, if you haven't seen this John Cleese video, you really should...

It's Bartletisms again though, as McCain mentions and then Obama reiterates that Palin has united the Republican Party; I can't tell you how much I wanted a “what you've done is bring the right together with the far right.” Then again, I did have the visceral thrill of McCain describing the partition of Iraq as cockamamie and Iraq as a whole as united; as a supporter of Kurdistan I got a major kick out of that piece of stupidity.

My one worry with Obama is that he's very good with numbers, which I love but you have to wonder whether the voters do. McCain's attack, “it's eloquent but you have to look carefully at the words” is the right one and it's a shame he gets it through on one of my great bugbears, free trade agreements without labour rights requirements; and as I'm reading Mark Thomas' book on Coca-Cola and the murder of trade union workers in Colombia, I'm delighted that he raised them in showing why free trade with Colombia isn't the no-brainer McCain says it is.

The image of this debate is becoming clear, however; Obama smiling that big toothy grin as McCain speaks. He's not wrong to be smiling, but it's one of those attitude things that appear to be so important in the response to these debates stateside.

Healthcare is the American policy issue I think we would understand the least, given our commitment as a nation to socialised medicine. It's also the issue that was best dealt with by Matt Santos in the West Wing debate and as Obama covers that same ground I'm willing him to deliver the beatdown; instead we get the sanitised version. Following that up is another massive question, the Roe v Wade test for Supreme Court nominees. McCain won't impose one, which is fine but it ignores the relative level of scrutiny involved; if you impose a litmus test as a Senator, that happens on the floor of the Senate, when you do so as President it stays within the Oval Office (and again, the West Wing provides some interesting primers on what the White House can do in that process). I get the feeling that I actually disagree with Obama on abortion too, it being another Obama-Santos parallel, but I'd much rather have my disagreement with him making that choice than my disagreement with McCain.

Meanwhile, as Liberal Youth prepares to discuss tuition fees at its conference, it's nice to hear Obama making the most fundamental point about fees as they are now assessed; we can't ask aspiring scientists, engineers and doctors to take on a mortgage worth of debt before they've even thought of buying a house. But again, as the education debate continues it's Santos-Vinick again as the failure of Headstart in later grades rears its head. By this point, even I'm surprised by how much West Wing there is in this debate.

And so we come to the end of the end. My guess is that McCain hasn't won this one and again, if he has won it hasn't been the big win he needed. As someone just posted on Facebook, McCain sounds like a man who's beat; we can but hope that that really is the case.

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