Friday’s debate was supposed to be home court advantage for McCain. It was ninety minutes long and one of only three debates between the two remaining candidates entirely devoted to McCain’s strength: foreign policy.
With all the dangers we face around the world, McCain’s experience is comforting to some Americans. He has also recently capitalized with a tough stand against Russian aggression and a successful effort to connect his support of the troop surge and the reduction of violence in Iraq. McCain should dominate a foreign policy debate, especially since he’s historically been a good debater and Obama has not.
Friday night should have been the next turning point in the back-and-forth pendulum that is the election polls, stopping Obama’s economic crisis-driven momentum. But it wasn’t.
First, McCain’s campaign caused a distraction in the 48 hours leading up to the debate with his call to postpone the debate to deal with the economic bailout being fought over in congress. The gamble intended to show his leadership, but was confusing, as he does not sit on any of the relevant committees.
Until shortly before the event, the media was unsure if the debate was even happening, even though the organizers had no intention of cancelling. Finally, McCain caved, and his gamble, added to the media obsession with the bailout fight, took the attention away from the substance of the debate in the days before and after. Even if McCain had dominated Obama in the debate, its effect on the electorate was stunted from the start.
Second, the financial crisis forced moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS to waste the first 40 minutes of the debate discussing the candidates’ stances. When I say wasted, I don’t mean that the subject is not relevant; I mean the discussion was a waste. Both candidates danced around the questions and repeated the same talking points and buzz words we’ve heard over the last week, as if terrified to say the wrong thing.
It was annoying to hear the same Wall Street vs. Main Street and CEOs with golden parachutes pandering for the hundredth time, and bold statements like Obama’s “$700 billion, potentially, is a lot of money,” and McCain’s “This isn't the beginning of the end of this crisis. This is the end of the beginning.” McCain even attempted to repeat some of his old jokes about paternity tests for bears in Montana and not being Miss Congeniality of the Senate, which were greeted by silence since the crowd was told to not make any noise.
Finally, when the debate moved to foreign policy, Obama actually managed to stand his ground against McCain. To Obama’s benefit, one of the moderator’s first questions was on the lessons of the Iraq war. This was an easy lay-up opportunity for Obama to not only remind Americans that most of them think Iraq was a bad idea in the first place, but to attack McCain to his face for his initial support of the Bush Administration’s 2003 invasion rationale. “John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007,” Obama said. “You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy.”
For the rest of the debate, McCain pulled out all the stops with encyclopedic name-dropping of countries most of us have never heard of and relentless attacks on Obama delivered without a glance to his opponent, as if not to acknowledge Obama’s presence. But Obama was able to generally find an answer to most of what McCain threw at him. It was surely a pleasant surprise to his supporters when McCain described a bracelet that had been given to him by a woman who had lost a son in Iraq, and Obama retorted with “I've got a bracelet, too.”
Polls conducted after the debate showed more people thinking Obama had won than McCain. But more important than polls is the narrative the next day, which generally found that there was no clear winner.
Considering what this debate should have been, no clear winner is a big loss for Senator John McCain.
Alex Leduc is a freelance columnist and blogger, as well as a journalism student at Concordia University. All his political columns are available at www.alexleduc.com