Friday Talking Points [49] -- Before And After The First Debate

[UPDATED -- See part 2 in the Talking Points section.]

This week's column will be presented in a sort of semi-liveblogging fashion. What you're getting here first is my usual take on the week, and the weekly awards. But the Talking Points segment of the program will not appear until after the debates (and after, of course, I type it).

Because while the purpose of this column has always been to provide Democrats with talking points to use when being interviewed over the weekend, there is really only going to be one subject this week -- how did Obama and McCain do in the first presidential debate?

Normally, in other words, I'm providing a public service to Democrats on what to say, and how to say it effectively. But even I am not egotistical enough to think that publishing a column an hour before a debate of this magnitude is going to change what Barack Obama says by even one word. So, rather than write a pointless column this week, I am postponing the Talking Points part of the program until after the debate actually happens.

After which, I will offer my critique on the best lines of the night. So tune back in, probably about an hour or so after the debate finishes, in order to see the second half of tonight's column. It won't be a true liveblog, but rather a "before and after" look at things. When part two appears, I will post a note at the top of the column to let you know it's worth scrolling down, I promise.

OK, enough navel-gazing. What a week it was, eh? John McCain is showing what has been described as his "Ready, Fire, Aim" approach to running things, and even Republicans are shaking their heads in confusion over McCain's "I won't debate!... Well, OK, maybe I will..." grandstanding this week. His non-suspension suspension of his campaign added to this feeling of watching a slow-motion train wreck happen. All this actually helped McCain in one way -- because if there hadn't been such a circus to watch then Sarah Palin's disastrous interview with Katie Couric would have gotten a lot more attention. Again, even conservatives are recoiling in horror from how unprepared this woman is for the job she's running for. But it was buried under the bailout plan news, which had to have helped McCain in some small way.

But the biggest mistake McCain made this week was to blow off David Letterman. And to tell Letterman that he was canceling his appearance (an hour before taping) because he had to rush back to Washington to fix things... and then, instead, do an interview with Katie Couric himself, and not go to Washington until the next day. Letterman has been giving it to McCain with both barrels ever since. As has Craig Ferguson, host of the show which follows Letterman on CBS.

This may sound silly to some, but there is a frightening amount of people out there who get their only exposure to politics from watching late night chat shows. This demographic is bigger than you might think. And Dave sounds seriously annoyed, so he'll be raking McCain over the coals on a nightly basis from now on. Which is why it truly was McCain's biggest mistake of the week.

But we've got a lot to get to, so I'll comment more about the presidential race after the debate. Tune back in to see the update. For now, let's get the awards out of the way.


While there were individual Democrats here and there this week who did impressive things; and while Barack Obama had a good week himself out on the old campaign trail... there was really no true competition for this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.

This week the MIDOTW is awarded jointly to Senator Chris Dodd (who, by all rights, should now be known as: "The Democratic Senator Connecticut isn't embarrassed by!"), and Representative Barney Frank from Massachusetts. Dodd, (Chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee), and Frank (Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee) were the point men on handling Bush's bailout plan in Congress this week. And they did a pretty good job all around. They were out front on the issue, all over television, explaining why Bush's plan was unacceptable, and (a key point) they were out front almost immediately.

Here is a recent statement from Senator Dodd, for instance:

It is regrettable that 40 days before an election, it has taken the worst economic crisis in our nation since the Great Depression to finally get the attention of the President. Until this point, the cries for help from millions of Americans being forced from their homes and struggling to make ends meet fell on the President's deaf ears. Now, we face challenges that were entirely preventable and avoidable.

The Administration has put forth a proposal to address the crisis they helped to create. It would be a grave mistake to sign away billions in taxpayer dollars with no questions asked. For that reason, the Congress is working around the clock to develop a solution that includes more oversight, stronger protections for taxpayers, and measures that will address the root cause of this crisis -- the collapse of the housing market. We are making progress, and are committed to sending the President a proposal in an expeditious -- but judicious -- manner.

Whatever plan passes (or doesn't pass) will be immeasurably better than what Treasury Secretary Henry ("Hank") Paulson wanted, because of the stellar example both Dodd and Frank showed this week. Before the public even understood what Bush was proposing, Frank and Dodd were patiently explaining it to anyone who would listen, and explaining why Democrats needed to modify it, and what the necessary modifications were. They were the true adults in the panic-filled atmosphere in Washington this week, and for this effort they are jointly awarded this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.

Well done, gentlemen!

[Congratulate Senator Chris Dodd on his Senate contact page and Congressman Barney Frank on his House contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


Before I get to this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week, we've got to take care of some "old business" here first. Now, while she didn't actually win a MIDOTW award or anything, I got some rather pointed feedback for praising Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz last week (solely for being such a great attack dog for Barack Obama). It seems Schultz has annoyed quite a few Democrats in Florida.

And I agree that they should be annoyed. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DSCC) is the House group in charge of getting Democrats elected to the House, and they have a special "Red to Blue" program, to get Democrats elected in previously Republican "red" districts. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a co-chair of this program. But in South Florida, she is backing her Republican House buddies against efforts by their Democratic challengers. On the DSCC's own blog, you can see a small sampling of the reactions to Schultz in the comments made on a recent "Red to Blue" update. And if you need more proof, Howie Klein at The Huffington Post has been closely following the story.

While I still believe this doesn't detract a bit from her value as an Obama surrogate out on the campaign trail, it does indeed earn her a special DisHonorable Mention here. She should obviously either be supporting all Democrats running for Congress, no matter her personal friendships -- or (at the very least) should resign from this "Red to Blue" co-chairmanship. She really can't have it both ways -- either stand with your party against your friends across the aisle, or stand with your friends and relinquish your leadership position to get Democrats elected in "red" districts. Anything else is rank hypocrisy, which is why her special DisHonorable Mention statuette, known as the "Joe Lieberman/Zell Miller" award for party treason will be struck from the calcified deposits of yellow bellies found under Benedict Arnold's crypt.

Ahem. But -- I warn you -- that's just the warmup.

This week's MDDOTW award is given out to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. They both earned this dishonor for the pathetic nature of the last three weeks. And by "last three weeks" I do mean "last three weeks"... of this session of Congress. That's right, you can see for yourself at the House's official schedule page, or the Senate's official schedule page -- beyond this weekend, Congress has nothing planned. Until next January, when the new Congress is sworn in. For those of you not up on Washington euphemisms, the House page uses "District Work Period," while the Senate prefers the more genteel "State Work Period," to refer to what normal people would call "not being in Washington, D.C., doing the people's business." Or perhaps more accurately, "vacation time." And note that "Target Adjournment Date" in both ("adjournment," as in "that's it for this year, folks, we'll see you in January!) is today... or, in the Senate, the ever-genteel "TBD" for "To be determined."

Remember when Democrats took back Congress, and we got lofty words from Pelosi and Reid about how Democrats were going to force everyone to knuckle down and get some things done? And work long schedules into the night, as opposed to those lazy Republicans? Well, that was all talk, apparently. Now, we have Democratic leaders Pelosi and Reid (who set these schedules, it should be noted) saying, in essence: "Well, nothing important is going to happen for the next four months, so we'll just shovel some money at Wall Street before we go home, and then we'll see you all next year."

This, it should be noted, in the midst of what more than one expert has called "the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression." But my guess is Congress will pass something fast, so they can all go home and have fun on the campaign trail as previously scheduled.

Sounds like a good time to take four months off to me! I mean... what else could go wrong?


So, Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are just fine with Congress taking a break... for the rest of September... and all of October... and all of November... and all of December... and most of January. Because everything in America is obviously hunky-dory.

Now, they may indeed make me eat my words. Perhaps Congress will be called back in October, in the middle of the election season (not very likely). Or in November (but there's Thanksgiving at the end of the month, maybe one or two weeks could be arranged... but probably not). Or in December (but then there's Christmas and shopping and all of that, so that's probably not going to happen). Or in the first three weeks of January (but that would push up the swearing in of the new Congress, so that's not an option...).

If it sounds like I'm a little annoyed by all of this... well, I guess I just have to plead guilty as charged.

Now, I would be in a little bit better mood if Congress had done something of note in the last three weeks (they only had three weeks because, of course, they just got back from their six-week-long summer vacation and there are only so many weeks in a year, after all). But they really didn't.

The House, as usual, passed a few things worth noting. But they did so fully cognizant of the fact that the Senate would just not have the time to take such matters up. There was a Credit Card Customer's Bill of Rights (the official name might have been slightly different, but that's essentially what it was) passed by the House, for instance.

You can be excused for not having heard about this before, due to the Democrats (as usual) hiding their light under a gigantic barrel. When, oh when, will the Democratic leadership get the hell out there with their ideas? When will they learn basic P.R.? What could possibly convince them to hire some Madison Avenue ad-men and ad-women to push their cause? Why must Democrats always be so inept at this stuff?!?

Ahem. I got carried away there, and I apologize.

Seriously, what is it going to take? I would bet that a "Credit Card Bill Of Rights" would sound pretty damn good to an ENORMOUS swath of the American public... and yet we've heard nothing about it up until now -- DURING A CAMPAIGN SEASON -- when it passes the House and goes to the Senate to die an ignominious death because there are only four months left and Congress can't possibly meet during that period for a single day to pass some law of this magnitude.


You know what these past three weeks should have been full of? They should have been full of stories about Congress voting on good Democratic ideas to fix America. And they should have been filled with votes specifically intended to embarrass Republicans out on the campaign trail (bills with innocuous names like the "I Love Puppies Act" and the "Grandmothers Are Worthy" bill). And yet none of that -- none of that -- took place.

Can you name one thing Congress did in the past three weeks? I didn't think so.

And that is an enormous failure of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

You know what they did get done? The "budget." That word is in quotation marks for a reason. Rather than pass an actual budget -- the numerous appropriations bills that are supposed to fund our federal government -- you know what they did? They punted. Big time. They lumped all the spending they hadn't managed to pass in formal appropriations bills by the October first deadline into one "omnibus" or "continuing resolution" bill. They stuffed it full of pork (of course) and they put it all in to a "too big to fail" bill. And you know what else they did? They refused to push any Democratic issues in this bill in abject fear of a veto (which would have required them to come back from their vacation... oh, excuse me, "from the campaign trail"...) from a president with approval ratings below twenty percent -- which would have shut down the government.

This is pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.

And, to cap off the irony, you know what Pelosi and Reid sold down the river by passing this abomination? Offshore drilling. The quarter-century-old ban on offshore drilling was not amended, it was not updated, it was not modified for the future, it was not addressed by a rousing debate -- it was instead allowed to quietly expire. That's right -- by doing nothing, the Democratic leadership allowed it to just pass right on into the history books. There will now be no federal ban on drilling anywhere offshore anymore -- because Pelosi and Reid didn't want to pick a fight in the middle of an election.

OK, this polemic has gone on for way too long. I apologize. Normally, this is a short little blurb of a few paragraphs. But I wanted everyone to fully understand why I am so annoyed at Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid right now.

One can only hope that there will be leadership challenges this year before the new Congress is sworn in. Because I've had just about all I can take from the last two years. It's time to give someone else a shot at running things. And for that, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid should hang their heads in shame for winning this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

[Contact Majority Leader Harry Reid on his Senate contact page and Speaker Nancy Pelosi on her contact page to let them know what you think of their actions.]


Volume 49 (9/26/08)

[I am writing this now after the debate, and after watching a little spin room just for flavor.]

Since these columns are partisan by definition, I am not going to examine John McCain's performance in-depth here. But before I get to my general conclusions about the first presidential debate, I'd like to break Obama's performance down into what he did well, and what he didn't do well.


Things Obama did well

For the most part, Barack Obama's language got a lot better for this debate. Short, declarative sentences abounded. He drifted into what pundits call his "professorial" mode a few times, but it was kept to a minimum. And he wasn't painful to listen to. There were very few pauses, and very few "er" or "um" or "ah" noises in there. This has been a problem for him at times, so it was good to see.

Obama kept good eye contact with the moderator, the camera, and turning to McCain (McCain mostly kept staring straight into the camera, and refused to look at Obama for the most part). Obama's style, bearing, and demeanor were all downright presidential throughout the entire debate. Foreign policy and economics are serious stuff, so there was little humor throughout from either candidate, and no truly memorable lines or "zingers," at least not that I noticed. OK, maybe Obama's line about McCain talking about not meeting with the president of Spain, but still, nothing we'll remember ten years from now.

Obama kept referencing the middle class, his "tax cuts for 95% of the people," and health care, all to good effect. There were excellent back-and-forth bits on Iraq, talking to dictators, and Afghanistan, and Obama stood up for himself admirably. This is not Michael Dukakis, in other words. Obama was respectful of McCain, but several times basically called him a liar. I'm sure the fact-checking will be intense all weekend long over what both McCain and Obama said, so we'll see how that all shakes out.

Obama was well-versed in all the foreign policy they talked about. There were no moments where he stumbled, or appeared not to know what he was talking about. This was a solid, no-nonsense guy, telling you what he thought. Obama had a grasp of all the complexities of American foreign policy, and did a fairly good job of tying a lot of the problems to George W. Bush.

Obama, I thought, did a good job of balancing emotion and cool-headedness. He was forceful at times, standing up for what he believed in, and you could tell he was getting emotional about several issues. At the same time, he didn't appear "angry" or hot-headed at all. Obama smiled and laughed at a few insults from McCain, which came off as a show of strength (this sort of thing can backfire, but I think he did a good job the few times it happened).

One thing that may be both a good thing and a bad thing, in the long run, was that Obama was obviously making an effort "not to play McCain's game" on personal attacks. Although, as I said, the jury's kind of out on how well he did at this. Which brings us to....


Things Obama didn't do well

Obama, one of the talking heads pointed out immediately afterwards, seemed to be on defense more than he was on offense. This may have been an unavoidable result of the debate largely being about foreign policy, which is (after all) supposed to be McCain's strong point.

At the beginning, Obama didn't drive home very well that McCain has been for deregulation for his entire career. In general, Obama was like a guy with a quiver full of arrows on his back, searching the ground in front of him for a spare arrow without realizing he's got dozens of them easily at hand. Obama was extremely weak on something he should have been extremely strong on: John McCain's voting record. McCain was taunting him with his record all night, and Obama did almost nothing to counteract this. The few times Obama did try to bring it up, he didn't drive his point home at all, and it was mostly lost in McCain's bluster.

I mean, what exactly was keeping Obama from pointing out that McCain did not support the "New GI Bill" which gave college money to veterans? McCain bragged over and over and over again how much he supported veterans, and Obama totally and completely let him get away with this. "Senator McCain, if you support veterans so much, why did you say that the New GI Bill we passed to give veterans better benefits was -- and I quote -- too generous?" How hard would that have been?

Obama did try to do this a few times, as on votes for alternative energy, for instance, but then he let McCain skate away instead of pounding him with his own record. McCain won this skirmish, constantly saying "Senator Obama voted for/against..." whatever. Obama really needs to get a lot better at this before the second debate.

In general, Obama has to learn how to much more forcefully call John McCain a liar when he is standing there next to him, with his pants clearly on fire. "John, that's just not true." "John, I have to interrupt, because that's a lie." This was especially noticeable at the very end, when John McCain compared Barack Obama to George W. Bush for being too stubborn. And Obama let him get away with it.

And finally, McCain had his little talking point (call it his "theme") and whipped it out pretty much every other sentence. I'm sure you noticed it, too. "Barack Obama just doesn't understand..." Obama held his own against this in general (and McCain was so blatant about using it that most people probably saw through it as a cheap ploy... but not all of them). But he needed at some point to say "Actually, John, I DO understand, it is you who haven't figured it out yet." Or something along those lines.



I think tonight's debate was largely a draw. I think Obama fans will think he had a good night, and I think McCain fans will also think their guy did well. Neither candidate fell flat on their face at any point, or had a "senior moment." But also, I don't think either one of them hit it out of the ballpark either. I think Barack Obama passed the "looks presidential" test with flying colors, but then John McCain looked OK as well.

John McCain, in the primaries, was a very tough debater. Obama struggled with it for a while, then got better. I think Obama was pretty close to the top of his game tonight, and I think he learned the lessons from the previous debates well. Obama was clear, presented his facts and his beliefs in language that everyone can relate to, and didn't seem like some sort of elitist. So, for millions of Americans, some of whom have never seen Obama in more than a 10-second soundbite, I think Obama looks like a serious candidate for the highest office in the land.

Also, I have to say, the whole concept of "winning" or "losing" a debate is completely subjective, so it's hard to know what anyone thinks (at least until the mainstream media tells them what to think). I know it'll be an interesting Sunday morning, as both sides try to spin it to their relative advantage.

And one last thing I know... after seeing Sarah Palin interviewed by Katie Couric, I think the vice presidential debate is going to be a whale of a lot of fun to watch.

See you next week!


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Full archives of FTP columns: