It dragged. Obama and McCain both concentrated on talking-points that are, by now, tiringly familiar. And the format encouraged them. Neither man was ever asked to develop or elaborate. Moderator Tom Brokaw’s chief concern was time-keeping, as if covering the ground and squeezing in a couple of extra lame questions from the audience was more important than subjecting any of the answers to examination. He might as well have said: “Please state your position on the economic crisis. Thank you. Please state your position on Pakistan. Thank you.” At least Jim Lehrer tried to get them talking to each other in their first debate. Brokaw actually seemed keen to prevent it: pressure of time.
Though both candidates spent a while (and it felt like longer) on the economic emergency, I didn’t feel that either’s comments advanced the discussion, or seemed equal to the gravity of the situation. Almost the first words out of McCain’s mouth were “energy independence”; almost the first words out of Obama’s were “blame deregulation”. We know, we know. Neither gave much indication that the crisis was leading them to think things through afresh; one wonders what it would take to do that. (Correction: both seemed keen to make Warren Buffett Treasury Secretary. He’s too smart to take the job.)
Neither helped viewers to understand the rescue package or how it might be improved; neither conveyed much sense of understanding it themselves. Perhaps McCain was on to something with his idea about doing more to prevent mortgage foreclosures. (The idea is not new, but the emphasis was.) He said so little about what this might mean in practical terms, though, that I’m guessing that the idea just drifted past most viewers.
The most lively clash was, again, one we have seen before. McCain attacked Obama for his rashness in saying he would attack inside Pakistan to get bin Laden if the Pakistani government was “unwilling or unable”. Obama reaffirmed the position, noting how odd it is for McCain to chastise him for such undiplomatic talk–as though “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” McCain was more given to gentle persuasion than he was. (a) Most Americans support Obama on this, and are right to. (b) Are we seriously asked to believe that McCain would not also go after bin Laden if the target presented himself? McCain wants to make his charge of “inexperience” stick. This is not the way. He loses this exchange every time he initiates it.
Obama as always was calm, collected, reassuringly intelligent, and vague. McCain seemed less confident intellectually, and a bit more given to bluster in compensation; he also looked old. What else is new? Neither seemed to me to score a decisive hit or make a big mistake. Few if any voters will have switched allegiance–which makes it Obama’s night, given his recently widened lead in the polls. McCain needed a clear win. He got a draw, at best.