Posted Friday, Sept. 26, 2008, at 11:27 PM
Whoever wins the election, one thing is for sure: The next president of the United States will be extremely boring.
At least, that’s the impression voters just tuning in will get based on tonight’s debate.
The evening was heavy on substance, from the Wall Street bailout to Iraq to Russia and Georgia. Which is good, in theory. But there wasn’t a single memorable line. McCain did a better job of boiling his message down to short sentences—"That isn’t just naive, it’s dangerous," he said of Obama’s desire to hold talks with unfriendly nations. At another point, McCain held up a pen and promised to veto every spending bill that crossed his desk. But none of his lines zinged like his now-famous "tied up at the time" moment during the primaries. Obama, meanwhile, sounded discursive and academic even about visceral issues like war with Iran: "What Senator McCain refers to is a measure in the Senate that would try to broaden the mandate inside Iraq" to justify action against Iran, he said. Obama did have a strong moment where he repeated the phrase, "You were wrong," referring to McCain’s opinions on WMD and being welcomed as liberators in Iraq. But for the most part, it was like a race to the bottom of my memory.
Jim Lehrer tried valiantly to get the candidates to address each other. Eventually, Obama managed to turn to McCain and address him in the second person, but only after some prodding. "Say it directly to him," Lehrer instructed Obama at one point. McCain never mustered the will.
The last few weeks are partly to blame. People have become so used to potshots and posturing—"100 years," "lipstick," sex education for kindergartners—that sober discussion of earmarks comes off as, well, dull. It was also the subject matter. Lehrer deliberately avoided pulling a Gibson/Stephanopoulos and instead stuck to policy. Sure, it occasionally got personal. McCain said Obama doesn’t know the difference between tactics and strategy; Obama accused McCain of trying to "pretend like the war started in 2007." But compared with recent weeks, it was all pretty tame.
That said, boredom is probably a good thing. The media fixate on debate details that reflect poorly on the candidates. (George W. Bush garbling a sentence, George H.W. Bush checking his watch, Al Gore sighing a lot.) So, the lack of "moments" means the candidates were able to stick to their message, not screw up any lines, and generally stay relaxed. Plus, there are greater sins than wonkiness in a debate. Tonight’s topics demanded some drilling down. McCain’s discussion of Georgian sovereignty, Obama’s distinction between "preconditions" and "preparation," the sacrifices the economic bailout will force both candidates to make—all of this matters. I’m just glad they provide a transcript.