We've learned recently that John McCain likes chaos. First there was his surprise pick of Sarah Palin, then there was his hold-onto-your-hats rush back to Washington this week. The first presidential debate could have used a little of that homegrown mayhem. It was a very sober and even exchange with nary a hint of serendipity.
Obama and McCain looked like equals onstage. McCain turned in a marginally stronger performance, but Obama looked strong enough, and in a tough year for Republicans with Obama leading in the polls, that's a victory for the Democrat. Obama did what he needed to do to convince people he could be commander in chief—his challenge for the night. McCain showed he could talk about the economy—his challenge—but not so brilliantly that he dented Obama's advantage on the issue.
Obama's big test was to help viewers see him as a possible commander in chief. There were a lot of people watching who have never taken such a considered look at the Democratic challenger. He was firm in his beliefs and clear in his views on foreign policy. He performed better than he did on the 40 minutes of economic policy the two men discussed at the start of the debate.
McCain repeatedly asserted that on foreign-policy issues Obama "didn't understand." But Obama didn't look like a man who didn't understand. McCain was essentially calling Obama a Sarah Palin—but Obama didn't look like one. He walked back his position on meeting with rogue leaders as far as he credibly could, and he was clear about when he would use military force, which balanced out his talk about diplomacy.
Obama will benefit from having the better sound bite of the night. Cable-news producers didn't have many to choose from for the endless analysis of the debate, but one clip they'll show will certainly be Obama's criticism of McCain on Iraq. "You said it was going to be quick and easy," Obama said. "You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong." It was assertive, and it weakened McCain's claim to superior judgment.
Obama is lucky this was his best sound bite—because he gave McCain some good material to make a campaign commercial that makes just the opposite point. Eleven times Obama said McCain was right. Before the debate was even over, the McCain team had spliced those into an ad for the crucial post-debate spin war.
Looming over the two men was an enormous American eagle with the traditional arrows in one claw and olive leaves in the other. It was fitting that McCain stood under the arrows. It's not that all his answers favored military action. But he clearly had a martial cast to his posture as he took tough stands against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. That's his worldview. The question is whether that's the way the swing voters he needs to convince see things. In the post-Iraq world, polls show that Americans are wary of using military force to protect the national interest. Swing voters, who almost by definition tend to embrace a more moderate view, are probably closer to Obama's worldview as it was framed in the debate.