The Oxford debate

After the last couple of days, McCain badly needed to win Friday’s debate. My immediate feeling was that he didn’t even manage a draw.

Obama was on fine form. He did not meander. His responses were calm and focused. He never looked rattled. He seemed comfortable with the issues and unthreatened by his opponent—sufficiently unthreatened to be generous to McCain now and then, an effective Clintonian (Bill) touch. McCain was prickly, rarely looking in Obama’s direction, repeatedly accusing him of failing to understand the issues—a difficult charge to make stick with Obama looking so assured. McCain’s aggression seemed to me at times to betray a lack of confidence. He had his moments; still, I thought it was a comfortable win on points for Obama.

Now and then I found myself thinking, “Remind me, what is it that they disagree about?” Health care, for sure, but that subject as usual came and went very quickly. Taxes? Again, yes, though both are pitching themselves as tax-cutters. Spending? Harder to say. McCain has his hatchet, Obama his scalpel: they both claim to be fiscal conservatives, intent on getting value for money. Who knows what that would mean in practice? McCain as always tried to make a mountain out of the earmarks molehill—saying it was emblematic of a wider culture of fiscal abuse—but I don’t know if that was very successful. He did score a hit on Obama’s support for the energy bill, but how many people watching know enough about that pork-laden legislation for the point to have registered?

As ever it was clear that they are guided by different ideologies. McCain is relatively pro-business, pro-market; Obama, despite the intellect and the pragmatic mindset, shows a wide streak of anti-business populism. But the debate did not really get at the practical implications. Questioned about the bail-out, for instance, they were unwilling to get into the details of their differences, if any. I’m sure Obama scores points with his simplistic “blame it all on deregulation”, and McCain’s pro-business prejudices are a handicap right now. But when the financial regulatory system comes to be made over, it will be a question of getting the quality of regulation right, not the quantity.

Turning to foreign policy, both men seemed intent on exaggerating what in practice might be rather slight differences. McCain still refuses to admit that the Iraq war was a mistake; Obama still refuses to admit that he was wrong about the surge. But that is the past. Looking ahead, McCain wants to wind US forces in Iraq down as soon as circumstances allow; Obama wants a timetable of sorts, but is not promising to get troops out by a certain date regardless. Both want to pour more forces into Afghanistan. Are their positions really so far apart? The long debate about meeting enemies “without preconditions” seemed to me entirely about semantics rather than the nuts and bolts of practical diplomacy. Either administration would make overtures to Iran or North Korea if it thought it might get results; neither would fly the president in for a chat without having a good idea in advance what the outcome would be. Dealing with Russia? Both men want Georgia and Ukraine in NATO.

Their characters and temperaments are very different, of course, but we already knew that. McCain goes by instinct and (yes) experience, Obama more by intellect and calculation. Ideally, one would have all of the above. Forced to choose, I prefer the latter, but can see there are pros and cons on both sides.

I thought the debate moved off the financial crisis too quickly, though it was not for want of effort by Jim Lehrer, who I thought did a superb job as moderator—relaxed, funny, courteous, self-effacing. (So it can be done.) I wanted to applaud as he cheerfully kept pressing his question about which aspects of their plans would have to change in order to pay for the bailout. McCain talked about a spending freeze (“it should be considered”). Obama acknowledged that some of his proposals might have to wait, but would not say which (and then listed all the main ones as so important they should go ahead regardless). Neither candidate, it seems, has given thought to the fiscal implications of the bailout. Perhaps this is a good thing. If either were to do that, they might wonder if they really want to win.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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