A Tale of Two Debates

September 29, 2008 - 5:40 PM
There were two debates last night: the first half on the economy and the second half on foreign policy. Obama won the first half, and McCain won the second. But it was not a draw.
There were two debates last night: the first half on the economy and the second half on foreign policy. Obama won the first half, and McCain won the second. But it was not a draw. The economy is the most important issue, and a great many people watched only the first half of the debate. Unlike a horse race, it is the opening, not the finish, that is the most important.
             
Barack Obama entered the first debate ahead in the polls. He scored at least a draw in this first confrontation. So likely, he is still ahead in the polls. McCain has lost a golden opportunity, and Obama has survived the first debate. So, in the ultimate test of who comes out of this debate ahead, Obama won.
             
Barack Obama's performance in the first debate was articulate, glib, direct, specific and substantive. He showed a familiarity with the issues and a capacity for direct answers that has eluded him previously. He has raised his game since the primaries.
             
McCain, who did better as the debate progressed, gained by putting the age issue aside. He seemed energetic, able, alert and specific. He scored well in mocking Obama's failures on foreign policy and projected how naive and unprepared he is on key foreign policy issues.
           
But the economy is front and center these days. And on the economy, McCain lost. He entered the debate after "suspending" his campaign and announcing that he would not attend the debate. The nation wondered why he acted as he did. Was it a gimmick? A stunt? Or was it the beginning of a carefully thought out plan to go to the core of this national emergency and emerge with a victory and a deal.
           
By attending the debate, McCain had an obligation to explain himself and to show what he has achieved in suspending his campaign. He struck out totally in this key area. He sounded just like Obama in calling for a bipartisan approach. He did far too little to differentiate his position from Obama's. He did nothing to hammer home the fact that he was not going to use tax money but rather insurance and loans to finance the rescue package.
           
We are left wondering why McCain acted as he did and suspecting him of just being impulsive, desperate and quirky.
             
So the taller, younger, better-looking, more articulate man won the debate last night. Obama showed a level of concern for the average American that McCain, who undoubtedly feels that concern, failed to project. McCain, for his part, did nothing to differentiate himself from Obama on the bailout package. While McCain was effective in speaking about reductions in spending, he failed to project a concern for "Main Street."
             
McCain did not do nearly enough to pin the big-taxer label on Obama, and the Democrat did a far better job of attacking the Republican tax cuts for what he calls the "rich."
           
Stylistically, McCain talked to Jim Lehrer while Obama talked into the camera. The result was that we watched McCain debate while we watched Obama speak directly to us. And the stylistic difference left us with a sense that Obama was the more focused, sharper and more compelling candidate.
           
McCain scored points by pinning the naive label on Obama and warning about the danger of his policies, but it was contradicted by the seeming knowledge and seriousness of Obama's approach. He did not look or act or sound like a waif.
           
Advantage: Obama.