The First Obama-McCain Debate: Not as Telling as Real Life

| Sat Sep. 27, 2008 12:25 AM EDT

No memorable exchanges. No historic zingers. No gotchas. The much-anticipated first face-off between Barack Obama and John McCain resolved little. Neither candidate strayed from their usual briefing books. The talking points were recycled. McCain blasted Obama for being a rookie in the ways of national security. Obama questioned McCain's judgment, notably his initial support for the Iraq war.

They both played it safe. Especially when it came to the hot topic of the night: the $700 billion bailout plan for Wall Street. It was no surprise that moderator Jim Lehrer would lead off with the issue, even though the focus of this debate was supposed to be foreign policy. And in his first question, Lehrer asked each candidate to state where he stands on the "financial recovery plan." Neither would get specific. Obama cited the need to move "swiftly" and "wisely." He called for effective oversight of the plan, taxpayer protections, and guarantees the money spent would not reach the pockets of CEOs. He pointed to the current meltdown as evidence of the failure of economic policies supported these past eight years by George W. Bush and McCain. It was standard fare.

McCain noted he was heartened by the bipartisan negotiations under way in Washington. He, too, cited the need for accountability. He mentioned the possibility of adding a provision to the package that would allow the federal government to offer loans to troubled institutions rather than buy their bad paper. Neither one, though, fully endorsed the plan--or raised any objections. Asked if he would vote for it, McCain said, "I hope so." It was a strong signal he would not be mounting any from-the-right populist crusade against the proposal.

But each candidate exploited the bailout queries. Obama tried to tie McCain to Bushonomics. McCain hailed his own efforts to curtail pork-barrel spending on Capitol Hill. Obama slapped him for focusing on $18 billion in earmarks while supporting $300 billion in tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals. McCain accused Obama of being a tax-hiker. Obama countered--correctly--that his tax plan provides far more relief for taxpayers making less than $250,000 a year than does McCain's proposal.

It was as if they were eager to talk about any economic issue other than the details of a gargantuan bailout that may or may not work and that may or may not be popular come Election Day.

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On foreign policy, the candidates dished out the expected lines. McCain touted the surge in Iraq and slammed Obama for having ever doubted the wisdom of the wonderful General David Petraeus. Asked for the lesson of Iraq, McCain said, rather inelegantly, "You cannot have a failed strategy that will then cause you to nearly lose a conflict." Obama assailed McCain for supporting Bush's grand distraction and having failed to recognize that the job in Afghanistan ought to have been finished first. He connected the ongoing Iraq war bill--$10 billion a month--to the nation's current economic woes.

On Iran, McCain derided Obama for wanting to hold talks with President Ahmadinejad (whose name he mispronounced a few times before getting it right), claiming such a move would practically send a signal that the United States approves of a second Holocaust. Obama defended his policy of engagement, noting that there were other Iranians to speak to besides Ahmadinejad and that the Bush administration has recently broadened its diplomatic approach when it comes to the ol' Axis of Evil. McCain claimed Obama had been indecisive at first in reacting to the conflict in Georgia. Obama echoed McCain's tough stance against Russia, but cautioned that the United States could not revive a Cold War approach because it still has to deal with Russia on the pressing matter of loose nukes.

In talking policy, both men came across as knowledgeable. McCain truly perked up when he got the chance to discuss the strategic importance (as he sees it) of the Caucasus region. Obama demonstrated confidence in his ability to challenge McCain on the strategic importance of the Iraq war. But, indubitably, many viewers of the debate would score these exchanges in accordance with their preexisting opinions of the two candidates. As for those knotty undecideds, there was no specific assertion that an analyst could point to and say, "This is going to stir them."

Once the debate ended, the television commentators immediately tried to assess the impression each conveyed. McCain did come across as somewhat condescending. He barely looked at Obama and almost seemed annoyed to have to be talking foreign policy with that other guy. He tried to put Obama down by charging that Obama did not know the difference between a tactic and a strategy. He slapped him for not supporting funding for the troops. (Obama voted against an Iraq war funding bill that did not have a timetable for withdrawal--just as McCain voted against a funding bill that did.) And McCain sent one straight shot at Obama, saying, "I don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or the experience" to be commander in chief.

That was no knockout punch. And Obama kept his now-famous cool. He did not swing too hard at McCain. Several times during the debate, Obama said that McCain was "absolutely right" about the point under discussion. Obama did question McCain's temperament, noting that McCain had threatened extinction for North Korea and had once jokingly sung a song about bombing Iran. But McCain, in response, pointed to his opposition to Ronald Reagan's deployment of Marines in Lebanon as proof he can be trusted to make prudent decisions about war. (That is, he's no warmonger.) McCain noted he wears a bracelet honoring a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq as a reminder of his pledge to that soldier's mother to do all he can to insure her son's death was not for naught. Obama replied that he, too, wears a bracelet--given to him by the mother of another fallen soldier who asked him to make sure no other parent loses a son in vain. He was calm; McCain was pugnacious. How that plays is hard to assess. It's truly a matter of taste.

There was much buildup for this debate. For weeks, members of the politerati looked forward to it as a defining moment in the campaign. The big question: would Obama be able to display commander-in-chief cred? Then McCain's shenanigans--pulling out, jumping back in--added to the drama. The big question: would he be prepared? And would Obama be able to take advantage of the last-minute shift to economic matters? But the debate ended up a straightforward affair, with no twists, no turns. Commentators could score it any way they wanted. Obama held his own on national security affairs, so give him the nod. McCain did the same on economic matters, so maybe he won over the 27 American voters who have yet to decide. You can look at it this way: given that Obama has been ahead in the recent polls, McCain lost by failing to beat him to a bloody pulp. Or this way: McCain survived what many analysts considered to be a bad week for him.

In any event, it's on to the next main attraction: the Biden-Palin duel on Thursday. Then there will be two more Obama-McCain debates. But who knows what other crises will hit between now and November 4 that will force the candidates to react to the real world? In fact, this past week demonstrates that the candidates' responses to events beyond their control may be more important in determining the outcome of this election than the debates. Fancy that: reality trumping political theater. It happened this past week. And in the next six weeks, it could do so again.

Photo by flickr user Barack Obama used under a Creative Commons license.