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.
George Stephanopoulos had this to say: “These guys came to play on each other’s turf. It was really surprising to me is that John McCain came in here with a disadvantage on the economy. Barack Obama had a big advantage, yet I think [McCain] spent the 30 minutes very effectively pounding home the points that have to control spending and earmarks.”
And from NBC’s Tom Brokaw: “That was the most distinctive difference obviously once we got into the area of national security. John McCain bored in on Barack Obama. He’s been reading the same polls we all have. There are grave reservations in most of the polls about whether Barack Obama has enough experience and whether he’s qualified to be commander in chief. And tonight Senator McCain went right after that vulnerability in Barack Obama.”
McCain also got kudos from Tom Yepsen, the most respected reporter in Iowa who wrote:
The Arizona senator was cool, informed and forceful in Friday’s first presidential debate of the general election campaign. He repeatedly put Barack Obama on the defensive throughout the 90 minutes session. Obama did little to ease voter concerns that he’s experienced enough to handle foreign and defense policy. That was his number one task Friday night and he failed. Instead he was often his old meandering self, unable to state a quick, forceful position. Polls taken in the coming days should show McCain holding on to his trump card in the race – the view that he’s better equipped to be commander in chief. He condescendingly called Obama “naive” at a couple points in the debate, like an old master lecturing a young understudy. Obama never seemed able to attack back. . . McCain was expected to win on questions of foreign policy and national defense. That’s been his background. Where he routed Obama was on economic and spending questions as he repeatedly accusing Obama of using earmarks and wanting to spend too much.
The “other” Roger Simon was equally glowing, declaring “Mac Is Back”:
John McCain was very lucky that he decided to show up for the first presidential debate in Oxford, Miss., Friday night. Because he gave one of his strongest debate performances ever. While Barack Obama repeatedly tried to link McCain to the very unpopular George W. Bush, Bush’s name will not be on the ballot in November and McCain’s will. And McCain not only found a central theme but hit on it repeatedly. Obama is inexperienced, naive, and just doesn’t understand things, McCain said.
When Obama talks about the struggling middle class, etc., he always says “they” (seems distant) or “you” (seems condescending). Why not “we” or “us”? Or “my buddy Joe down the street”? A core problem, and one that shouldn’t be that hard to fix; d) The big areas where Obama could scare voters about McCain are Georgia/Ukraine/Russia and Iran. On Georgia, Obama threw away his leverage by essentially moving toward McCain’s position, up to including Georgia in NATO. I guess we really are all Georgians now. On Iran, McCain didn’t say anything particularly scary–if anything, he seemed able to dispel some of those legitimate fears, Reagan-style.
And even The New Republic offered up praise:
McCain also had a clarity of message that Obama lacked. His core message is easy to sum up: Let’s cut waste and spending. I’m a tough leader. Obama is naive and unprepared. Obama, by contrast, had no single message that he repeatedly drove home. He came across as sensible, studious, and thoughtful–but at times abstract and passionless. Obama did land some good shots at McCain’s judgment over Iraq. But some of his other attacks–including his quips about McCain’s “bomb Iran” song, and seemingly not wanting to meet with the president of Spain–seemed halfhearted, almost as though Obama was embarrassed to make them. (To his credit, perhaps.) I was almost reminded of Hillary’s dead-on-arrival “change you can Xerox” crack from some primary debate 100 months ago.
And stylistically, McCain was more in control. He was the one setting the tone and introducing nettlesome topics, forcing Obama to respond and defend himself. Once or twice cut Obama off and talked over him, leaving Obama looking perhaps a little too polite. (Some TV commentators think McCain came across as rude, however, so maybe my read here is wrong, but I tend to think that voters respond to that kind of assertiveness in debates.)
Two questions remain. First, will this performance be sufficient to shake up the race? On this time will tell. The events will come fast and furious — a bailout bill, a VP debate, and two more Presidential face-offs. What we have learned is that key outside developments (e.g. an invasion or a financial crisis) and the candidates’ reactions have more impact on the race than the day-to-day scuffle between opposing camps. So it is too soon to tell whether this debate and ones to follow have the impact similar to a world-shaking event. And second, the McCain camp will be under the gun to make the most of their material. Some possibilities are already evident. Will the embarrassing stumble over the name on Obama’s bracelet be key? Will the Henry Kissinger misquote come back to haunt him?
I suspect it may be something far more serious. John McCain’s shining moments came in large part when discussing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. McCain had this to say:
My reading of the threat from Iran is that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the State of Israel and to other countries in the region because the other countries in the region will feel compelling requirement to acquire nuclear weapons as well. Now we cannot a second Holocaust. Let’s just make that very clear. What I have proposed for a long time, and I’ve had conversation with foreign leaders about forming a league of democracies, let’s be clear and let’s have some straight talk. The Russians are preventing significant action in the United Nations Security Council. I have proposed a league of democracies, a group of people – a group of countries that share common interests, common values, common ideals, they also control a lot of the world’s economic power. We could impose significant meaningful, painful sanctions on the Iranians that I think could have a beneficial effect. The Iranians have a lousy government, so therefore their economy is lousy, even though they have significant oil revenues. So I am convinced that together, we can, with the French, with the British, with the Germans and other countries, democracies around the world, we can affect Iranian behavior. But have no doubt, but have no doubt that the Iranians continue on the path to the acquisition of a nuclear weapon as we speak tonight. And it is a threat not only in this region but around the world. What I’d also like to point out the Iranians are putting the most lethal IEDs into Iraq which are killing young Americans, there are special groups in Iran coming into Iraq and are being trained in Iran. There is the Republican Guard in Iran, which Senator Kyl had an amendment in order to declare them a sponsor of terror. Senator Obama said that would be provocative. So this is a serious threat. This is a serious threat to security in the world, and I believe we can act and we can act with our friends and allies and reduce that threat as quickly as possible, but have no doubt about the ultimate result of them acquiring nuclear weapons.
But when Obama suggested that talks with Iran wouldn’t be a bad thing, McCain pounced:
Senator Obama twice said in debates he would sit down with Ahmadinejad, Chavez and Raul Castro without precondition. Without precondition. Here is Ahmadinenene [mispronunciation], Ahmadinejad, who is, Ahmadinejad, who is now in New York, talking about the extermination of the State of Israel, of wiping Israel off the map, and we’re going to sit down, without precondition, across the table, to legitimize and give a propaganda platform to a person that is espousing the extermination of the state of Israel, and therefore then giving them more credence in the world arena and therefore saying, they’ve probably been doing the right thing, because you will sit down across the table from them and that will legitimize their illegal behavior. The point is that throughout history, whether it be Ronald Reagan, who wouldn’t sit down with Brezhnev, Andropov or Chernenko until Gorbachev was ready with glasnost and perestroika. Or whether it be Nixon’s trip to China, which was preceded by Henry Kissinger, many times before he went. Look, I’ll sit down with anybody, but there’s got to be pre-conditions. Those pre-conditions would apply that we wouldn’t legitimize with a face to face meeting, a person like Ahmadinejad. Now, Senator Obama said, without preconditions.
But Obama gave him yet another shot when he again claimed that direct talks would be a good idea, one supported by Kissinger. McCain correctly stated that this was not Kissinger’s view and then swooped in for the kill “What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a “stinking corpse,” and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments.”
And then Obama insisted that some talks were in order. McCain delivered the knock-out blow:
So let me get this right. We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, “We’re going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,” and we say, “No, you’re not”? Oh, please.
If there are voters for whom national security and Israel are key that portion of the debate may be decisive.
But this debate was, of course, the opening round and not the final blow. In an exhausting, exasperating and fascinating campaign there is much, much more to come.