Saturday, September 27, 2008

Post-Debate Update (E-38)

And now, we're into the stretch. The first of four debates is over, and the first debate was a draw. Both candidates got some digs in, but neither was able to clearly pull away with advantage. For McCain, that's probably as good as a loss, since the emphasis of this debate was foreign affairs, his particular domain of expertise. This was as friendly a topic list as he could ever expect. If he couldn't throw Obama to the mat and make him cry uncle last night, it probably ain't gonna happen in the two other debates to follow. And now, the numbers:

From Pollster:

DEM: 229 (-31)
REP: 174 (-15)
Toss-Up: 135 (+36)

From Intrade:

DEM: 311 (current price 55.8, -1.7%)
REP: 227 (current price 42.1, -0.3%)

Now, reading the numbers... There's a story that's not told. The Intrade prices about a week after the Republican convention were as near to even money as made no difference. The dynamic duo of McCain/Palin ran wild for about a week, breaking the race wide open, until she started talking to the press. You've seen the interviews, I presume? The phrase "duck's eye view of a shotgun blast" comes to mind.

If McCain loses, it's his disastrous choice of a running mate that will have sunk him. And this choice offers a window into McCain's thought processes that can be quite illuminating.

A fair number of people, some journalists included, tend to say that John McCain is a former fighter pilot. Strictly speaking, this isn't true. McCain is a former attack pilot. It's a different game entirely, played by a different set of rules. A fighter pilot is constantly engaged with the enemy or situation at hand, constantly trying to out-maneuver him to get a shot. An attack pilot's MO is different. They're just as engaged with the situation at hand, but their engagements with gunners on the ground is different. They aren't constantly engaged in a move/countermove cycle. They just have to juke a gunner on the ground once, and then they're long gone. The attack pilot constantly jukes, jinks, and pulls wild maneuvers to break contact and proceed to their target. It's no less demanding than being a fighter pilot, but the thought process is still different.

It certainly appears that his VP choice was an impulse buy. And it's a fair argument that there weren't many other good choices. I can almost see him leafing through potential VP dossiers: "Death. Death. Electric death. Painful salt-water-and-razor-blade-jacuzzi death ... oh, hey, no one's ever heard of this one before! She'll work!" And he was right, at least in the near term. The excitement over his new VP sent waves of energy through his base that weren't there before. He surged in the polls. Obama's odds went from 3-2 to even money in a matter of days. And then...

The ugly truth comes out. She's incapable of holding an intelligent, unscripted conversation on anything of real substance. If it hasn't been made plain already, it will become manifestly clear during the upcoming VP debate. Mind you, I still don't like Biden, for reasons I've mentioned earlier. And he's prone to sticking his foot in his mouth. But, he knows his stuff. If it's an issue he's had a chance to study up on, he'll know the particulars inside-out. Palin's going to wake up the morning after with a license plate number embossed into her skull, wondering where that Mack truck came from.

Now, you may ask, why does this even matter? It's not as if VP is a real job, anyway. You're doing two things: waiting for the opportunity to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, and waiting for the boss to keel over. Neither one happens all that often.

Well, here's why it matters. It's the first Presidential decision that a candidate makes. The care, deliberation, and process that they use form the template for all their decisions to follow. If that decision is quite plainly impulsive and tactical as opposed to considered and strategic, then it's reasonable to guess that the Presidency to follow would be one of management by damage control, lurching from one crisis to the next. And by this yardstick, McCain did not exactly cover himself with glory with his VP pick. It's deeply disappointing, and gives me grave concerns over his actual ability to govern.

What John McCain must do: John McCain has to win the center. He needs 96 of the 135 toss-up EVs on the table to win, Obama needs but 41. But he can't win the center by running to the right. It's not quite irretrievable, yet, but will be soon unless he pulls something spectacular out of his hat. Or, if something equally spectacular happens that he's able to capitalize on. And no matter what he does, if the election turns on economic issues, he's probably screwed.

What Barack Obama must do: Barack Obama must avoid unforced errors. He also has to win the center, but he's closer to accomplishing that goal than McCain is. The economic crisis plays to his strengths on domestic policy. As long as he stays calm, looks Presidential, and doesn't say anything stupid or crazy, he can keep his lead. At this point, he's not playing "catch-up", he's playing "stay-ahead", which is a far easier game.

The way to bet: Intrade isn't quoting odds quite so favorable anymore, but I'd still take 3-2 odds on Obama winning on November 4th. I don't think McCain's getting out of the hole he's dug for himself. For that matter, I'm not sure that he's even stopped digging.

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