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By Jay Cost

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McCain Controlled Agenda In First Debate

Friday's debate was an enjoyable, engaging contest. These candidates have such sharply different styles - there were reasons to expect a good show. I for one was not disappointed.

Barack Obama's initial answers to Jim Lehrer's lead questions were strong. He typically contextualized individual issues into a broader framework. Overall, I think this made him seem knowledgeable, which is how he needed to come across, given that the subject of the debate was foreign policy. However, it also made him seem a bit professorial. Watching the debate sometimes reminded me of a college class, as if I should lean over to my wife to ask, "What was number two in his four-point plan on Afghanistan? I missed it." It would be best for Obama to seem knowledgeable without seeming professorial - but above all he needs to seem knowledgeable.

McCain's initial answers to questions tended to be as strong, though not he did do very well in his response to the opening question about the financial situation. Where McCain had a persistent edge was in controlling the agenda of the debate.

Oftentimes, there's something to be said for not engaging the other side in a discussion. On many issues, one candidate is going to be a loser and one a winner. It's a matter of issue ownership. For instance, on Iraq, if the public decides that the crucial test is the surge, then Obama loses the issue. If it decides that the test is the initial decision to invade, McCain loses. So, rather than try to change voters' minds, each candidate should try to change the topic to more favorable ground. This is one reason partisan talking heads always seem to speak past one another.

Obama did not do this as well as he could have. He often tried to engage McCain on the latter's best subjects, which meant he ran into some trouble. Here's what I noticed:

(1) In the second question of the night, Jim Lehrer asked the candidates an open-ended question about "fundamental differences" between them. Both candidates focused largely upon spending and corruption, which are two of McCain's best subjects. They also spent a lot of time talking about taxes, which meant Obama had to deflect accusations that he'll raise taxes, something that voters might already be suspicious of.

(2) The very next question, about what new spending programs would have to be scaled back in light of the financial situation, also ended up about spending. All in all, while Obama did much better on the opening question, the next 25 minutes were spent on domestic issues that McCain has an advantage on.

(3) On Iraq, McCain opened with a discussion about the surge. Obama opened with a discussion about how it was not wise to go into Iraq in the first place. So, both candidates began saying things about Iraq that favor them. However, in the back-and-forth that followed, the discussion drifted to the surge, which is favorable ground for McCain.

(4) We'd expect Afghanistan to be Obama's best moment in a foreign policy debate. After all, the situation has deteriorated there, making McCain susceptible to the "Republicans took their eye off the central front" claim. However, it turned into a discussion about Pakistan, and whether Obama should have said what he said about inserting soldiers into the hinterlands to track down al Qaeda.

(5) On Iran, the subject turned to whether it is appropriate for the president to meet with "preconditions" or "preparations."

Five of the eight lead questions were fought largely over points that tend to favor McCain. The remaining three - the first question on the financial situation, the question on Russia, and the one on post-9/11 security - were fought on more neutral ground. Obama easily won the question on the fiscal situation, and he turned an impending loss on the Russia question into a tie. McCain tried to shift the conversation to Obama's initial response to the Georgian invasion, but Obama forced it to energy independence, a more neutral topic. Good defensive maneuver there - I would like to have seen more deflections like that. On the final question, both candidates gave similar answers on post-9/11 security, then quickly moved to prior points they had made on Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama was not thrown off base, which was good, but McCain was helped because his prior points had been made more clearly in those preceding questions.

The net effect of this was that McCain's performance resembled an argument - Senator Obama lacks "the knowledge or experience" and has "made the wrong judgments" - backed up by specific examples. Obama's performance did not create such an impression, at least not as strongly.

Why did this happen?

The answer can be found by recalling the last Democratic primary debate. At the time, I suggested that Obama did poorly because he frequently refused to let Senator Clinton have the last word on a subject, even if dropping it was best for him.

Something similar happened on Friday night. For instance, McCain would bring up pork barrel spending. Rather than let McCain have the point and move on to a more favorable subject, Obama would respond to McCain on pork barrel. That meant that McCain controlled the conversation, which therefore wasn't about health care, college tuition, job retraining, falling wages, or another subject that favors Obama.

McCain was also able to hamper Obama's rhetorical delivery. It wasn't just that Obama was debating on McCain's ground, at times he was not debating terribly well. Frequently, he was so eager to "correct the record" that he'd become a little too animated by the end of a McCain monologue. A few times, McCain even induced Obama to waste precious time responding to trivialities, as he did here:

MCCAIN: Senator Obama said the surge could not work, said it would increase sectarian violence, said it was doomed to failure. Recently on a television program, he said it exceed our wildest expectations.

But yet, after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today. Incredibly, incredibly Senator Obama didn't go to Iraq for 900 days and never

LEHRER: Well, let's go at some of these things...

MCCAIN: Senator Obama is the chairperson of a committee that oversights NATO that's in Afghanistan. To this day, he has never had a hearing.

LEHRER: What about that point?

MCCAIN: I mean, it's remarkable.

LEHRER: All right. What about that point?

OBAMA: Which point? He raised a whole bunch of them.

LEHRER: I know, OK, let's go to the latter point and we'll back up. The point about your not having been...

OBAMA: Look, I'm very proud of my vice presidential selection, Joe Biden, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as he explains, and as John well knows, the issues of Afghanistan, the issues of Iraq, critical issues like that, don't go through my subcommittee because they're done as a committee as a whole.

But that's Senate inside baseball. But let's get back to the core issue here...

McCain is making a broad point that the proper test of judgment is where each candidate stood on the surge. That's a point that could matter for voters. At the end of his answer, he impishly inserts an aside about Obama's subcommittee. Nobody is going to vote on that. Obama is right to note that this is "Senate inside baseball," yet he nevertheless takes the bait. Why bother? Why not allow McCain his snarky comment, and move immediately to discuss the wisdom of the initial invasion?

By contrast, McCain was rarely taken off message by Obama. When he did respond to Obama's points, he would occasionally laugh them off, as he did in this exchange:

OBAMA: He even said the other day that he would not meet potentially with the prime minister of Spain, because he -- you know, he wasn't sure whether they were aligned with us. I mean, Spain? Spain is a NATO ally.

MCCAIN: Of course.

OBAMA: If we can't meet with our friends, I don't know how we're going to lead the world in terms of dealing with critical issues like terrorism.

MCCAIN: I'm not going to set the White House visitors schedule before I'm president of the United States. I don't even have a seal yet.

In other instances, McCain would use Obama's point to pivot instantly to a talking point of his own, as he did here:

OBAMA: I just want to make this point, Jim. John, it's been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending. This orgy of spending and enormous deficits you voted for almost all of his budgets. So to stand here and after eight years and say that you're going to lead on controlling spending and, you know, balancing our tax cuts so that they help middle class families when over the last eight years that hasn't happened I think just is, you know, kind of hard to swallow.

LEHRER: Quick response to Senator Obama.

MCCAIN: It's well-known that I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate nor with the administration. I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoner, on - on Guantanamo Bay. On a -- on the way that the Iraq War was conducted. I have a long record and the American people know me very well and that is independent and a maverick of the Senate and I'm happy to say that I've got a partner that's a good maverick along with me now.

Finally, McCain would occasionally ignore Obama and make an entirely different point, as was the case here:

MCCAIN: I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans national defense and several other vital issues.

LEHRER: Would you go for that?

OBAMA: The problem with a spending freeze is you're using a hatchet where you need a scalpel. There are some programs that are very important that are under funded. I went to increase early childhood education and the notion that we should freeze that when there may be, for example, this Medicare subsidy doesn't make sense.

Let me tell you another place to look for some savings. We are currently spending $10 billion a month in Iraq when they have a $79 billion surplus. It seems to me that if we're going to be strong at home as well as strong abroad, that we have to look at bringing that war to a close.

MCCAIN: Look, we are sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don't like us very much. Some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations. We have to have wind, tide, solar, natural gas, flex fuel cars and all that but we also have to have offshore drilling and we also have to have nuclear power.

Senator Obama opposes both storing and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. You can't get there from here and the fact is that we can create 700,000 jobs by building constructing 45 new nuclear power plants by the year 2030. Nuclear power is not only important as far as eliminating our dependence on foreign oil but it's also responsibility as far as climate change is concerned and the issue I have been involved in for many, many years and I'm proud of the work of the work that I've done there along with President Clinton.

This pattern did not hold all the time - as with Obama's effective maneuvering on the Russian question. However, generally speaking, this is how the debate went. Obama showed up to debate. McCain showed up to say what he wanted. This meant that Obama was left debating on McCain's best topics, but McCain hardly ever debated on Obama's best topics.

Does this mean that McCain won the debate? Not necessarily. If we define "won" as the immediate reaction of the public, the polling evidence is mixed, and not especially helpful. LA Times, Gallup, CBS, and CNN showed Obama winning. Rasmussen, with a tighter Republican-Democrat mix, showed a closer 33-30 Obama victory. SurveyUSA found a clear Obama victory in California, but a one-point McCain victory in Washington State. Interestingly, SurveyUSA found McCain even with Obama on the economy in Washington, and with leads on who "understands" Iran, Iraq and above all Russia. Many of these polls found a strong contingent of people who considered it a draw.

So, putting aside the polls, I think it was politically beneficial for McCain to control the agenda of the debate. I think that meant he advanced his message more effectively than Obama. If McCain can manage the agenda of the next two debates as well (a big if), the final effect could be quite helpful to him. It will keep the conversation on subjects he prefers - especially useful for when we shift to domestic issues, which broadly favor Democrats this year. Also, it might give the impression that McCain is in charge of the discussion. That would enhance his "doer-not-a-talker" image, which would be good for him.

Given that this is similar to the problem Obama had when squaring off against Senator Clinton back in April, I think that this is something he should work on before the next debate. He should learn how to strategically ignore McCain, so that the conversation does not drift into subjects that favor the Republican nominee. In other words, Barack Obama needs to talk less to John McCain, and more to the television audience.

-Jay Cost