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.