The stakes were high and the window of opportunity narrowing for John McCain going into Tuesday’s second presidential debate. Barack Obama’s lead in the polls is significant and even conservative commentators agree the odds are daunting for a McCain comeback.
But not all hope for McCain has been extinguished, in large part because Sarah Palin has revived the base’s spirits and come out swinging on Obama’s connections to a shady and problematic cast of characters — from the husband and wife team of former terrorists (Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn) to Tony Rezko to Reverend Wright. Then on Monday Obama’s team went so far as to argue that Obama did not really know that Ayers — the infamous former Weather Underground member and Obama’s colleague at the Annenberg Challenge and the Woods Fund — was a former terrorist. The Obama spin brigade doubled down on Tuesday, insisting that Obama had no idea who the notorious terrorist really was when he showed Obama around Chicago, sat with Obama on boards, and kicked off his political career in Ayers’ living room.
Not even the usually forgiving Obama press corps was buying that one. Aside from the fact that excuse previously had never been trotted out, it strains all credulity to image that a media drenched, politically astute Chicago resident like Obama would have been unaware of Ayers and his wife’s record.
So with all of that, hopeful Republicans and nervous Democrats perked up: would we finally have some debate fireworks and would McCain finally come out swinging (as he did in an appearance in New Mexico on Monday), with his “gloves off” as Palin advised him?
Well fireworks there were not. The debate lagged and dragged and at times was downright dull. Tom Brokaw cracked the whip on time, but alas he couldn’t add much excitement or get the candidates to answer simple questions like how much would Obama “fine” businesses for not carrying health care coverage that meets government mandates.
That said, McCain did himself some good. He introduced a very un-Republican idea: the government will buy mortgages and help buyers renegotiate and stay in their homes. He made his case on taxes — that Obama has a record of raising taxes and that any tax hikes in a recession are a bad idea. He also made some headway in explaining his own healthcare plan and the costs of Obama’s. And every moment spent on energy policy — stressing the need for domestic oil production — is a winner for him.
On foreign policy, Obama ironically seemed stronger than he did on domestic policy. He called for crushing al-Qaeda and, surprisingly, for using force in Darfur (did he mean this?). It was McCain arguing for restraint and tempering out actions to insure that we can affect a positive result when we risk troops. McCain did come on strong when it came to Afghanistan, stressing that the surge (which Obama never supported) will succeed there under General Petraeus’ tutelage.
The most decisive moment on national security occurred at the end where McCain bonded with a chief petty officer questioner and pledged to support Israel in defending itself against a nuclear-armed Iran, taking a jab at Obama for his willingness to meet with Ahmadinejad who labeled Israel a “stinking corpse.” Obama once again came back with a subdued defense of diplomatic efforts, and again offered a defense of his plan for direct talks with the Iranians, although he did not name Ahmadinejad personally.
Surprisingly for such a polished orator, Obama fumbled at the end, and seemed at a loss to answer a fluff question about what he doesn’t know (well, considering his self-regard we could have predicted that would throw him for a loop.) He rambled and bobbed, finally ending with a bland “change” plea. As for McCain he gave a compelling wind up — analogizing to his time of captivity to express his strength, empathy, and faith in his fellow Americans.
Was there a clear winner? No, but each did what he needed to do. McCain did sound fluent on domestic matters and for the first time made a clear connection between Obama and the Democrats who took Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s campaign donations and looked the other way when it came to regulation. On foreign policy, Obama did not appear overwhelmed, albeit not up to McCain’s level of expertise. For a candidate ahead in the polls, Obama likely will breathe a sigh of relief that he will not lose ground because of this.
However, there was one funny gaffe of the night: Obama excoriated McCain for suggesting we should be able to buy health care across state lines and said that corporations did that — fleeing to low regulatory states where “they get away with murder.” On Senator Joe Biden’s watch? Oh my stars!
The real loser: the format, and the questions were deadening and dull. Perhaps serious times deserve a serious discussion but it shouldn’t be boring and conventional. Unfortunately, it was.