This is my first time watching the US presidential process from abroad. I've lived abroad before (a year in Germany and two in Canada), but never managed to overlap with a US election before. I was part of a course in persuasive speaking during the 2000 election and got some kind of perverse entertainment out of watching Bush and Gore mangle the basics of rhetoric; a pattern which seems to be repeating itself every four years.
The first challenge? Finding a video of the debates. I wasn't staying up late enough to watch the thing live (we're currently six hours ahead of the east-coast), but managed to find the debate in pieces across YouTube. (Other sites were either buggy, blocking me, or had low-quality video. Although I really like the NYT's interactive transcript/video, the video is too small for my tastes.)
General reaction? Debates between senators are boring. I guess that's the reason they tend to lose to governors — arms-length lists of "voted for's" and "voted against's"; picky details of sponsorship and support; committee versus sub-committee in-fighting… it all comes out sounding like minutiae.
I don't think Lehrer did an especially good job moderating. The questions were often too broad or generic, and the follow-up was weak. To be fair, it is the first debate, and he spent most of his energy trying (rather unsuccessfully) to coax the two into actually, you know, talking to each other. Asking how the bailout would effect their goals was a good idea, but it's like asking them to name their favorite child on national TV.
I thought the last question (the "likelihood of another 9/11-type attack" question) was particularly bad. The honest answer would be "who the @#$% knows?" but no one's going to say that on television. Worse, it's an opening for long, rambling "we're safe, rah-rah-rah" boosterism. I liked Obama's attempt to segue into the "lost standing" territory, but when Lehrer tosses that softball to McCain, he swerves onto a long ramble about missile defense nonsense.
Speaking of which, McCain didn't seem to answer any rebuttal question all night. His pattern of responses were long on hollow talking points and painfully short on direct answers. At times, it seemed like he was running for "king of the senate", rather than President, rattling off a laundry list of dubious "accomplishments" in his Senate career. At least three times (that I noted), he walked a long way around the question to be able to bring up Reagan – I guess someone thinks he's still shaky with conservatives.
As someone who's worked a few contracts over the years, McCain insistence that fixed-bid contracts would patch up the government's money leak bothered me. There's a tension between "getting what you want" and "paying what you can afford" in any contract, pushing the pendulum one way or the other doesn't change the basic equation. Fixed bids transfer the financial pressures to the contractor, which sounds great when money's tight, but more often than not, quality drops precipitously as a result. More oversight sounds to me like a solution to both problems. Maybe the Congress should spend less time writing stupid resolutions and more time doing something useful?
I thought McCain's best answer was his response on aggressive Russia, but even that felt forced and over-rehearsed, in addition to being a bit lose with the facts. Between deliberately misquoting Kissinger and Admiral Mullen, he seems to be tacking hard into "facts don't matter" waters, following a trail blazed by Bush and his running mate.
I'm already sick of the "defeat from the jaws of victory" line, and the whole attitude behind it, as it seems to drive hard at increasing American xenophobia, and more of Bush's "unilateral super-power" mojo. How do you declare victory in a war with no stated goals? Or lose a war we claim we "accomplished"?
Did anybody else notice McCain go all blinky as he starts his last real answer? (The one that starts with "I've been involved, as I mentioned before.") What's that about?
I really like Obama as a speaker, but as a debater, he wasn't much better. I thought his tone was a bit off — he seemed to be aiming for a "I know better than you" flavor of condescending (understable, given McCain's repeatedly pushing the "doesn't get it" button, but still odd to my ears). He also made more "meta-comments" like "Let me make a closing point" or "One last point I want to make". Too often he repeated John Kerry's mistake of over-talking, belaboring his points past the point of simplicity.
All told, it was a fairly uninspiring debate. I don't imagine many undecided viewers were strongly persuaded one way or the other by these performances. Worse, weak questions with weaker follow-up and too many talking points made for a low-wattage show. I'm eagerly awaiting Thursday's vice-presidential debate, though. That has the makings of a real spectacle. (I think Palin's going to be eviscerated.) Should be fun!