The final presidential debate

It was the best of the three, and way better than the useless second debate, for sure. The format worked well–sitting at a table seemed to encourage them to engage with each other–and the moderator Bob Schieffer did a fine job, asking shrewd, pointed questions and then following up. Both men raised their game, especially McCain, who of the two had far more ground to recover. We got a fuller discussion than before of most of the issues that came up–tax policy, for instance, and health care. But I doubt it has changed anybody’s mind. Neither landed a heavy blow, and neither made a bad mistake–unless McCain’s increasingly tiresome references to Joe the Plumber fall into that category.

A critical moment came when Schieffer asked for their opinion of each other’s running-mate. Obama declined the invitation to attack, offering faint praise (“she’s a capable politician”) and saying that voters would make up their own minds. He will be criticised for that, but I think he was wise. Voters who think Palin a disaster don’t need to be reminded of it by Obama, and voters who think she’s a good choice wouldn’t have been swayed. The main thing was for Obama to stay cool and collected, to avoid seeming angry or rattled. Especially with the economy in such a bad way, those are the traits that commend him to independents, and where he compares so favourably with McCain. His restraint on Palin served to underline them.

McCain’s demeanour was much improved, I thought. He also scored a point or two in the tax discussion, criticising Obama’s penchant for “spreading the wealth around”. His seeming moderation on Supreme Court appointments–”no litmus test”–will have pleased some independents (at the cost of annoying many conservatives). His best single line of the night was probably when he said he was not George Bush, and that if Obama had wanted to run against Bush he should have run four years ago: “I will take the country in a new direction.”

I thought Obama had the better of the crucial exchange on health care. Both men got a bit bogged down in the technicalities. I wonder how many viewers followed what they were saying. But Obama emphasised that if you were happy with your existing insurance nothing would change, and that McCain’s scheme would undermine existing employer-provided cover (which indeed it would; it is intended to). For most voters, that wins the argument. McCain’s approach has virtues–employer-provided insurance is a bad idea–and Obama’s estimates of the cost of his scheme are not at all plausible, but McCain has made a hash of explaining his own proposal, and it is fatally flawed in any case, because it does so little to improve coverage.

We saw a better McCain than the McCain of recent weeks, but it almost certainly comes too late. With the economic ceiling falling in, Obama’s grace under pressure inspires more confidence than McCain’s agitation, attenuated as it was for tonight’s encounter. Obama has the momentum, and I saw nothing to change that.

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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