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Quick Reflections on the First Presidential Debate, Race, and the Election


In the presidential debate tonight, for what it’s worth, I thought Obama was "on his game," such as it is.

The debate had all the standard authoritarian ideological limits. No serious candidate  can question the military budget or mention the number of Iraqis killed by the U.S. or the illegal + murderous + brazenly  imperialist nature of the invasion of Iraq or the inherent social inequalities and toxicity and crisis-prone nature of capitalism or the persistence of deep societal racism or…fill in  the blank.  

For what it’s worth, which is very little (okay. nothing),  I should add that Obama basically lied when he said this about the current U.S. financial meltdown:  "We also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain — the theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most and somehow prosperity will trickle down."  Obama is too smart not to know that critical financial de-regulation that contributed to the current financial fiasso was undertaken in the late 1990s under the guidance and leadership of Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs CEO Robert Rubin.  For a good account of that, please see Robert Pollin’s book  Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (New York: Verso, 2003) and other sources in my recent ZNet essay on Obama, McCain, and the financial crisis.

Within those narrow parameters and despite that revolting lie, however, I thought Obama naturally  "won" the debate.  He is clearly the better of the two corporate-military candidates: smarter and less vicious and dangerous and more human.  He was very smooth. 

But I’m not sure it matters. Most Americans don’t vote primarily on the basis of detailed policy issues, foreign or otherwise and all McCain really needed to do was show up and fill space talking about his "experience" and not look like a complete incompetent. He achieved those basic aims, frankly.

The "other" problem is race.

A leading academic racial voting behavior expert tells me If it was Biden-Obama instead of Obama-Biden the Dem ticket would be up 20 points. I think that’s probably right.

A recent USA TODAY/ABC News/Stanford poll has white people preferring McCain over Obama 56% to 36% ! Not good.

A recent Yahoo/ABC/Columbia poll has real racial bias significantly informing many white voters’ reluctance to vote for Obama. 

Sometimes I wonder if we will end up comparing Obama to Adlai Stevenson, a "smart"  and "eloquent" Democrat who lost (twice) to a mediocre Republican with a military history. But it is hard know where the line is between (a) BO potentially losing because of his blandness/centrism and non-confrontational "professorial" (very Stevenson-like in that regard)  aura and/or other reasons and (b) BO potentially losing simply because he’s black.  

Obama should be careful about smiling too broadly at McCain’s blustering.  White America (something that actually exists, whatever Obama says) will be "triggered" by that.  It will be interpeted as taunting and hanging on the rim after a dunk, so to speak.  

The Democrats can lose — and have lost —  debates by winning them perversely enough. Gore lost debates by winning them and so did Kerry.

It’s perverse and of course it drives liberals nuts, which I almost enjoy a little. 

Look: Lots of working class people hate "smarts" and smooth-talking "eloquence"  — it irritates and scares them because folks associate it with snotty class oppressors. This is for some very understandable reasons relating to the role of educational certification and erudition in the construction of class inequality, sadly enough.  Some people will rally to the support of Sarah Palin when they hear her denounced as an abject imbecile.  Of course, dangerously and sadly enough, Palin is in fact  an abject imbecile, compelling even the conservative columnist Kathleen Parker to call for her to step down.

A tie goes to McCain.

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