The Debate

Thanks for all the messages asking me what I thought of the debate. There’s a ton of excellent coverage out there already, and I don’t want to repeat the commentary you can find at The Daily Dish, Talking Points Memo, Eunomia, and lots of other places. So I’ll offer just a few thoughts on matters I haven’t seen touched on elsewhere.

I guess the first thing everyone wonders is, “Who won?”  I’d have to give the evening to Obama, though not by a lot. My reasoning: Obama had to show that he was “presidential.” I think he did.  McCain, especially after the preceding week of bizarre drama queen antics, had to show he wasn’t having some sort of a meltdown. I think he did. So both achieved their objectives, but Obama’s objective was the weightier of the two because it’s more likely to move the undecided middle, which at this point is all that really matters.  McCain also had to demonstrate that he was vastly superior to Obama on foreign policy. Personally, I think Obama did better here, but even if you think McCain had the edge, foreign policy is supposed to be McCain’s bread and butter, so an edge isn’t enough.

I think McCain’s refusal, or inability, to make eye contact with Obama even once is going to hurt him a lot. Mostly people are interpreting his refusal to look at his opponent as contempt. That’s a charitable interpretation, and regardless, not one that would attract undecideds to the candidate engaging in it. In fact, my take is that McCain was afraid to look at Obama — afraid that if he did so, his emotions  (fear, anger, whatever) would kick in and knock him off his game. However you want to interpret McCain’s failure to make eye contact (or even to glance left at where Obama was standing), it’s not going to bring undecideds his way, and will likely alienate many. Similarly, his constant “What Senator Obama doesn’t understand” and related refrains must have felt good to him and will please people who plan to vote for him anyway, but likely came across at best as undignified and arrogant to undecideds.

McCain also had a tendency to say, “Trust me, I’ll…” or “I promise, I’ll…”. After eight years of George Bush and in midst of an economic crisis, “Trust me” is a terrible way, indeed, a terrible phrase, to try to move the middle.

Substantively, I would have been disappointed if my expectations weren’t already so low. If you think about the substantive differences that were aired, they were tiny compared to the possibilities. Both candidates seem to agree that Georgia and other former satellite countries should be admitted to NATO. Their differences over how and when are important, but not as important as the whole question of what NATO is for at this point, and the costs and benefits of admitting a country like Georgia. Similarly, they both agree that we should be free to make incursions into Pakistan, presumably without any word from Congress, and differ only on whether it’s okay to say so out loud. Take a step back and you’ll see that this is a hell of a small policy difference compared to, say, should the president be able to direct secret, unauthorized wars in the first place? And can clandestine wars not backed by overt policy even succeed regardless? Etc.

At one point Jim Lehrer asked the candidates if the current economic crisis would affect the way they would “rule” the country once elected. Given the Bush Administration’s creeping monarchism, I would  have liked one of the candidates to correct Lehrer on his odd diction. Neither did.

The biggest reason I think the evening was Obama’s rather than McCain’s comes back to brand. McCain was clearly at pains to bolster his Experience brand by emphasizing how long he’s been around, how many foreign leaders he’s known, how many countries he’s visited, how many issues he’s been involved with. All of which is fine and under the right circumstances could be advantageous. But as I’ve written before with regard to Hillary Clinton, this is the wrong marketplace into which to try to introduce a product branded as “Experience.” McCain’s people realize this, and as I wrote a few days ago, they’re trying to respond to marketplace conditions by changing McCain’s brand to “Change/Reform.” But Change/Reform and Experience are dissonant brand claims, and McCain’s own debate efforts undercut his effort to modify the brand. In this regard and in others, McCain is faced with the same conundrum, and making the same mistakes, that Clinton made during the primary. Here’s what I wrote about Clinton’s branding efforts back in January. The whole post applies equally to McCain today, but here’s the main idea:

Part of what makes a brand powerful is internal consistency — that is, consistency between the elements of the message, and between the message and the underlying product. Inconsistency, that is, dissonance, weakens a brand. In other words, for a brand to have power, its various elements must organically cohere. Volvo stands for safety. How would Volvo fare if the company attempted to include in its brand the idea of speed, handling, and thrills? Not well, because thrills and safety don’t easily fit together in the consumer’s mind. Reliability, on the other hand, is something that does cohere with safety, and therefore, conceptually,
Volvo would have little trouble expanding its brand to make it mean reliability along with safety. But because Volvos are not, in fact, reliable, the extension wouldn’t work — there would be a disconnect between the brand and the underlying product…

But other things aren’t equal, and experience isn’t always the better brand to run on even when the claim to it is strong (note that George Bush Sr., the candidate of experience, was defeated by the young,  inexperienced Bill Clinton in 1992). There’s also the question of the suitability of “experience” and “change” as brands in the current market. And here, even if Clinton were the very embodiment of experience, she has the wrong brand for 2008.

“Experience” connotes establishment, status quo, the past — not concepts likely to be favored in a market that has seen five years of catastrophic war in Iraq; the epic incompetence of the response to Katrina; a plummeting dollar; a nine trillion dollar national debt; etc. “Experience” suggests you might be part of the problems people now want fixed. By contrast, all the associations of “change” as embodied by Obama — freshness, excitement, the new, the future — suggest the product in question, rather than being part of the problems of the past, will instead be the agent for solving them.

Clinton has realized her “experience” brand is not nearly as well suited for the current market as Obama’s “change” brand, and has therefore been attempting to make “change” a part of her brand, as well. You can see the results in her final pre-caucus Iowa television commercial. Note how many times she talks about how she’ll be “ready on day one” — to make “a new beginning.” (The message which Bill Clinton has been broadcasting, as well), is that only the candidate with experience can bring about change. Logically, there’s nothing wrong with this argument. But brands aren’t driven by logic. They’re driven by emotion, by unconscious associations, and the implicit question in the mind of voters (“if she’s so experienced, why is she only getting around to changing things now?”) cannot be satisfactorily answered by logic. In other words, “experience” and  “change” are not elements that cohere under a unified, powerful brand. (For a hilarious take on the ultimate in Clinton rebranding, click here.)

At the same time, McCain’s primary, and original, brand claim —  experience — has been badly damaged by his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Here’s just one of her recent performances:

Watch CBS Videos Online

(BTW, that claim about trade missions? Another… let’s call it another falsehood)

True, Obama has undercut his own core brand of Change by selecting Joe Biden, a six-term senator whose brand — longevity, insider, experience — is dissonant with Obama’s. But my sense is that it’s easier to yoke “experience” in the service of “change” than it is to do the reverse. Also, no matter who he adds to the ticket, Obama just looks and sounds like change (whether he actually represents such a thing is of course a separate matter). McCain, no matter who he adds, looks as though he’s been around forever. Once again, in this marketplace, even if McCain hadn’t done so much to dilute and distort his brand, he’d have the tougher sell. I think his debate strategy has made it tougher.