There could not have been a bigger build-up, right? The “on again/off again” histrionics over the bailout negotiations and whether the debate would even occur provided all the drama that was needed to ensure that tens and tens of millions of voters tuned in to watch John McCain vs. Barack Obama tonight. Some observers even speculated that McCain had intentionally bolstered the audience with his threat to cancel the debate. (Perhaps if it had been on pay-per-view it would have made a contribution to solving our growing budget deficit.)
In essence we saw two debates: one about the financial crisis and one about foreign policy. So two questions now remain. Who won each of these debates-within-the-debate, and more importantly, who does everyone think won?
The first section of the debate was supposed to be on Obama’s turf — the economic crisis and domestic policy. Surprisingly, McCain was able to steer the conversation back to helpful turf — his opposition to tax hikes and his ferocity on spending restraint. Obama seemed stumped when he was asked repeatedly for items he would change in his agenda now that we have a looming financial crisis. On domestic policy, one might fairly cast it as a draw. Paul Begala observed that Obama never zeroed in on the financial crisis and tied it around McCain’s neck. Given the huge advantage which Obama holds on domestic issues, McCain had to be happy to hold his own.
But on foreign policy McCain simply hit it out of the ballpark. He again and again came back to Obama’s opposition to the surge and to his willingness to meet without conditions with Ahmadinejad — who, he reminded viewers, has called Israel a “stinking corpse.” Likewise, he skewered Obama for his initial response on the invasion of Georgia that both sides should “show restraint.”
How did they hold up on temperament? Obama seemed peeved, and a number of observers – including Juan Williams and Alex Castellanos — agreed. McCain was occasionally funny and poked at Obama but showed none of the nastiness or ill-temper which his foes identify.
But the “gotcha” may have been from Obama — who eight times conceded that McCain was “right” on a point. McCain rushed out a video capturing a number of these.
So how did Obama and McCain fair in the opinion wars? The telling difference: Obama’s spinners tended to call it a draw while McCain’s group was ecstatic. William Krstol on FOX said “no knockout but on the offense throughout.” Nina Easton, also on FOX, criticized Obama — “something bland and policy-speak” about him she thought. Juan Williams conceded that Obama didn’t really successfully tie George W. Bush to Obama.
We’ll have more as the night goes on. But for once this week the McCain camp is feeling a spring in their step.
McCain got some praise from a variety of sources — CNN’s Bill Schneider and Politico’s Jonathan Martin. But the killer quote came from Henry Kissinger whom Obama had invoked to criticize McCain’s stance that we should not meet unconditionally with Ahmadinejad. Kissinger retorted: “Senator McCain is right. I would not recommend the next President of the United States engage in talks with Iran at the Presidential level. My views on this issue are entirely compatible with the views of my friend Senator John McCain. We do not agree on everything, but we do agree that any negotiations with Iran must be geared to reality.”
From two network anchors came praise.