Saturday, September 27, 2008

Who Won the Debate? Comments from Colorado

I had the privilege of watching the debate tonight in Denver with a group of highly interested citizens in the home of a new friend.

Mostly 30-40-somethings, they shared some incredibly interesting insights.

Lots of Obama supporters, a broad range of professionals were represented, including restaurateur, journalist, web site designer, financial former-hedge-fund numbers-guy, state information specialist, immigration paralegal, professional development manager, technical writer, attorney, and more in other discussion groups. Married couples and singles, some have small children, and others have small furry "children." I don't think there were any hockey moms - of any political persuasion.

I tried to sneak into the warmly colored candle-lit living room just after the debate had started (as per usual, I had a hard time breaking away from a writing project to leave on time and arrived 30 minutes later than I had planned). I had never met them before, aside from the host, who graciously stopped the debate to introduce everyone (oh my gosh, so much for sneaking in!). Thank the stars for TiVo, because no one seemed too disturbed by my disruption. To my relief, they welcomed me, and we got the debate back on after a couple of moments of pleasantries.

My subscribers will know that I've been trying to challenge my own stereotypes this election season and listen to people I would usually ignore (remember, I even listened to Bill O’Reilly and Pat Buchanan?). I was determined to hear both Presidential candidates with an open mind.

The room silenced as the TiVo fired up the debate again. I felt optimistic that I could listen and try to be receptive to both sides. Be open, I told myself.

But I found myself closing off to McCain must faster than I had hoped. As I watched his body language and facial expressions and listened to his words, I realized I had crossed my arms and legs, rolled my eyes, and wanted to say something, even if just "whatever" as the group watched silently, intently, intensely.

Every once in a while, someone would say something quick, so as not to interrupt the debate (OK, it was usually me, but I tried to stay quiet, I did!). A few times, we had to stop and rewind (the miracles of TiVo) to catch something we missed, or thought we might have heard incorrectly.

One of those instances occurred during a discussion of the economy when McCain tried to support his plan to cut the taxes for the rich corporations by claiming that since Ireland only has an 11% tax rate, unless our corporations get a tax cut the businesses will . . . what, go to Ireland? We had to rewind that to make sure we had heard what country he said. Yes, it was Ireland.

Closing off. Smirking. Laughing haughtily. McCain and I were both doing it.

I tried to open up again. Uncross the legs and open arms. Open mind again.

But then McCain brought up the earmarks. If you read my previous post on this topic, Earmarks-Shmeermarks: Keep Your Eye on the Ball, you'll know why I just couldn’t stay silent. Earmarks are only 1% of the federal budget, and one month in Iraq costs an entire year of earmarks. Earmarks can be good, unless abused. Legs crossed, rolling eyes, and folded arms.

Obama said (most of) the things I hoped he would say. And his demeanor reassured. He talked about priorities that matter to me, alternative energy, tax cuts for working Americans, making corporations pay their fair share, education, phased-withdrawal from Iraq, diplomacy, health care.

I wished Obama would have addressed McCain’s proclamation that he would take care of the veterans. Obama, please remind everyone that McCain voted no on the GI bill and then missed the vote the next time it came up! Why didn’t he hammer this fact?

It felt like time slowed for the debate. All were quiet. Listening. Thinking.
I couldn’t wait to confab with my debate-watching compatriots to hear what they thought about all of this!

When the debate ended, the pundits came on. With all due respect to the media, I wanted to mute them immediately and hear from the people in the room. A few moments later, little discussions broke out all over the place. I wanted to hear each one, but they all erupted at once.

I was surprised that the groups jumped into policy issues immediately and didn’t spend much time on the funny stuff, like when McCain said his pen was old, or Obama called McCain “Tom” then later another name (was it Bob?).

The first discussion I heard centered on the financial markets and what would happen to us all. Our financial expert gave us a quick tutorial in insurance on mortgage losses and the financial house of cards we saw tumble last week. Scary stuff.

Some of us wondered whether we will see a fundamental change in our daily lives as one group member recounted how her sister in another state was afraid she might not get home from work tonight because the gas stations had closed and then later opened to huge long lines of cars waiting for fuel.

We wondered whether the financial crisis would bring us back to basics and force people to live within their means, and whether that would be such a bad thing in the long run. There was some discussion of whether China would become the largest owner of American companies and what effect the rising debt would have on our ability to rebound.

There was unanimous agreement that our costs have gone up noticeably, food, gas and electricity. But salaries haven't. Some worried about food and power outages. Others have started walking or riding their bikes or scooters to work. Some opined that we might all lose weight in the next few years, and maybe the diet industry would become obsolete.

I sensed a cloud of fear and anxiety in the room. I had expected to be celebrating Obama’s win. But they didn’t seem overwhelmed.

One woman said she wasn’t impressed with how many times Obama said McCain was right, as he prefaced several of his answers before showing where he was wrong. She said she could just hear the McCain camp saying something like, “he agreed with McCain eight times tonight.” As a matter of courtesy, once or twice would have been enough for her.

Another said that he didn’t think Obama or McCain adequately addressed how the financial meltdown would impact their proposed budgets. And some wondered whether there might be an October surprise to rival Sept. 11 or the Great Depression.

Then the talk turned to the upcoming Vice Presidential debates and Sarah Palin’s performance with the media this week. One man was astonished that she hadn’t been prepped better. Acknowledging that Charles Gibson’s question about the Bush-Doctrine may have been loaded, he thought the lack of preparation of Palin on these issues was a bad sign. His wife thought that if Palin couldn’t handle Katie Couric, she’s in for trouble with Putin. I heard some comments that Palin’s quips about Alaska being the front lines between Russia and the U.S. showed a great and scary lack of understanding.

After the debate, it was almost as dark inside as out. The mood was heavy.

But as quickly as the mood had turned fearful, it turned hopeful, as the group began discussing how the U.S. might weather the storm and become more of a world citizen instead of an imperialistic military force. They talked of the importance of community and de-centralizing the energy and food structures.

They hoped we could restore the respect and friendship of the rest of the world.

As people left our gathering to return to their homes and lives, I felt a new sense of hope for our country. People do care about important issues. They are listening, apparently with open minds and open hearts.

Yet no one would say who won the debate.

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