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.
McCain was at pains to show that he knew the world very well. Almost every one of his foreign-policy answers had a little footnote. He'd either visited the region or talked to the leader in question. He sounded like Al Gore as he easily pronounced a host of complicated names and places with ease. (He got to "Tymoshenko" and "Yushchenko" so quickly and easily, it sounded like he was reading from Dr. Seuss.)
McCain, who had a bad week, looked at ease and in control. It may have been his best debate performance of the year. He delivered no zingers, but he also had no stumbles, and despite a few groaner jokes, he didn't lapse into too much boilerplate. Democrats had been whispering for days about his temperament. I mean, suspending his campaign to rush to Washington? What was that about? McCain's temperament seemed cool and even. His aides say that on the flight from Washington, he was joking and teasing his staff, even though he'd left a chaotic mess in Washington. McCain does seem to like chaos.
From a political perspective, McCain was surprisingly strong during the conversation about the economy. He made a call for accountability and then relentlessly hammered the overblown spending in Washington. The potential problem for McCain is that people may have heard "cut spending, cut spending" and not have taken away anything that will help them in their daily lives. Obama countered by returning everything he said on the economy to a discussion of the middle class.
Obama wouldn't talk straight when moderator Jim Lehrer repeatedly asked the two men to name cuts they'd make to accommodate the financial bailout. McCain did talk straight—suggesting an across-the-board spending freeze. That was candid but politically deadly. Obama has ads he can run about all the attractive-sounding programs that will be "cut" by such a freeze.
Obama is lucky that his "you were wrong" sound bite will live on past the debate, because at several turns he didn't stand up for himself. I can imagine Obama fans were frustrated their man didn't throw a few big punches. As the two debated Obama's position on meeting with foreign leaders, McCain repeatedly overstated Obama's standpoint. After several rounds of back-and-forth, Obama only tepidly asserted his stance. When they debated the economy, Obama challenged the idea that McCain could change Washington's spending habits after voting with Bush 90 percent of the time, but as he did so he petered out. He ended by mumbling, "I think, just it's, you know, kind of hard to swallow." Pfffft.
There was lots of great body language to read. Obama looks down when he's saying something unpleasant—like delivering an attack on his opponent. Obama looked at the audience more (as Kennedy did in 1960), McCain talked to the moderator (as Nixon had). When McCain was talking, Obama looked at him, like he was a listener. McCain stared straight ahead when Obama was speaking, which at times made it appear as if Obama was scolding him for denting the car.
It was a bit of a disappointment there weren't more fireworks, since the format was designed to have the two candidates engage each other. At one point the moderator nearly begged them to take each other on. It was not to be. Just a day earlier they had met in the White House separated by five politicians. On the stage, in Mississippi they seemed almost as far apart.