Obama Wins On Points In First Debate

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[Election 2008]

Please excuse the boxing metaphors, but as a former amateur pugilist and lifelong fight fan, it was hard for me not to see last night’s debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in anything but metaphors drawn from the so-called “sweet science.”

Somewhere along the way to last evening’s encounter I was reminded of then-Cassius Clay’s classic taunting of Sonny Liston prior to their historic 1964 world heavyweight championship rematch in Miami. “I am the prettiest,” Clay-cum-Ali brashly declared. “I am the fastest heavyweight that you ever did see. Next to me, Liston will look like a dump truck.” And so he did.

I had hoped last night’s debate would have gone just like that evening in Miami, with Obama delivering a knock-out punch assuring his victory in November—but it did not happen. Obama won on points, but there were no knockdowns.

John McCain is indeed a worn and tainted warrior, but more like the legendary Archie Moore than the aging Liston; he can take a punch. And Obama is more like the young Ali  (then Cassius Clay), fresh out of the Olympics, swift and quick, and pretty, yes, but he has yet to develop a knock-out punch. Nor has Obama learned to cut off his opponent in the ring, something at which Ali was masterful. Once he had his opponent on the ropes, he pounced.

Time and time again in the early rounds of questioning about the American economy, Obama had the opportunity to deliver a knock-out blow—he could have asked McCain how many homes or automobiles he owned, or raised the specter of the Keating Scandal whenever McCain branded himself a political maverick. He could have brought up McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, being on the payroll for lobbying Fannie May and Freddie Mac.

And he should have made a joke about being glad that McCain had decided to show up at all tonight in Mississippi. Obama needs to smile more.

There were a host of other openings, but Obama did not use them to his advantage. As Bill and Hillary Clinton whispered on the campaign trail, Obama lacks the killer instinct; he still seems uncertain and a bit too pained to be in the ring. And he was far too often on his heels, peddling backwards.

It might have gone the other way. At the beginning of tonight’s debate, John McCain did, indeed, look like a dump truck. He stumbled. He was ill-prepared. He appeared to be tired and unsure of himself. Early on, he was on the ropes, when trying to defend his comments about the economy. But as the night wore on and the later rounds turned to matters of foreign policy, McCain began to take the offensive.

He took the battle to Obama. And he never gave an inch of ground. An old boxing pal and debate teammate of mine called me in the middle of it all and joked that “Obama looks more like the old George Foreman than Ali.” He was right.

Let me be most candid here: for all the demonizing of McCain by the Democrats in the past several months, I would take McCain over Bush in a heartbeat. I have never been a McCain hater, and there’s been some substance to his claim about being a maverick in the Senate. He is despised by the George Bush forces in the Republican Party, and those are fairly solid bona fides in my eyes.

Moreover, this has been a particularly bad week for McCain. His attempt to cancel last night’s debate was revealed for what it was: a desperate ploy by a desperate candidate headed for the canvas. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called McCain’s move a “huge mistake.”

That was a light left-jab. In a column for the Washington Post entitled “McCain Loses His Head,” conservative columnist George F. Will delivered a much heavier blow when he declared that McCain wasn’t fit to serve.  “The more one sees of his impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events,” Will wrote, “the less confidence one has that he would select judges by calm reflection and clear principles, having neither patience nor aptitude for either…It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency.”

Then came the painful interviews with Sarah Palin by Katie Couric. If one ever needed the personification in the flesh of McCain’s poor judgment, it was his selection of Palin as his running mate. Case closed.

So McCain had already taken a good pummeling by the time he got in the ring last night. But Obama never went on the offensive once. Yes, he was sharper, tighter, more precise than in his primary debates, a little less professorial, and perhaps a bit more workingman. But time and time again he felt compelled to say “John is right,” while McCain consistently said, “Obama is wrong.”

That Obama is the master of the stump speech to the large, partisan crowd goes without saying. He is brilliant in that arena. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of debates, he seems decidedly less at ease, less willing to mix it up. Hillary Clinton got to him in their debates earlier this year, and so clearly did McCain.

I can only imagine what Joe Biden is going to do to Sarah Palin. She has no business even being in that debate. She will be revealed for what she is: a political flyweight with no experience in the ring.

But Obama has two more mano a mano battles with McCain, and he needs to float like the proverbial butterfly and sting like a bee. For those of you who are too young to remember Ali during his prime, here is a delightful sampling of his mastery:


Someone in Obama’s camp needs to get him into the gym and work on the oratorical heavy bag. He needs to bring in that left hook and bang hard: Boom! John McCain is wrong! Boom! John McCain is corrupt. Boom! He is a liar. Boom! He is an apologist for Bush. Boom! It’s not about the minutiae, it’s about the big picture. Boom! Boom!

Obama needs to find the fire in his belly.

Like Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964, John McCain’s better days are behind him.  We’ll see if Barack Obama’s are yet to come.


Black Star News columnist, Award-winning filmmaker and journalist Geoffrey Dunn, Ph. D., is the former recipient of both a John L. Senior Fellowship to the Cornell University Graduate School of Government and a National Newspaper Association Award for Investigative Journalism. His most recent film is Calypso Dreams.

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