The economic crisis should have been the knockout punch for Barack Obama. During the first presidential debate, which was supposed to focus entirely on Foreign Policy, opened with a focus on the Bush/Paulson/Pelosi driven $700 billion bailout deal. Conventional wisdom always gives Democrats an edge when the economy is limping along. Polling this week confirmed that McCain was on shaky ground. Obama was ebullient in his self-congratulatory language… he just knew, this time, he had closed the deal.
And then, as before, Obama did not close the deal. He could not tie the funding for the Iraq War to the Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac / AIG / Lehman / WaMu / Bear Stearns catastrophe. Dems always blame “Corporate America” – and yet, he could not get it done tonight. Why? Because he knows, if he pushes a little too hard, the laser-light will focus on how one of his most senior advisers, Jim Johnson – who formerly headed the Vice Presidential selection committee – was at the helm of the failure. Failed to turn the ship away from the rocks, while soaking the American taxpayer for $90 million.
A much more compelling link to the economic crisis than a hired-gun that has not received a dime in several years on McCain’s campaign team.
That said, Obama was much tougher than I expected him to be. After watching his handwringing during the debates with Hillary Clinton, I expected him to be softer. Obama appeared to be pretty angry, and I really think the makeup artist from tonight ought to be fired. The Senator from Illinois looked older, angrier, and severe – it was a bit of a shock. He was strong but not yet presidential.
My man McCain. Just yesterday the press declared him dead over the suspension of his campaign. He walked right in, looking the part – he was vigorous. Virile even. Spoiling for a fight. He gave better than he got.
On the economic crisis, McCain delivered punch after punch. Taxes, family budgets, and perhaps the best exchange of the night was on earmarks: Obama excused them by noting they “only” accounted for $18 billion out of the budget. McCain laid Obama out on how earmarks lead to corrupt public officials, noting the NUMBER ONE ISSUE for Bush 2004 voters that voted out the GOP majority in 2006.
When the debate turned to Foreign Policy, McCain and Obama held par – most of the time. But Obama’s constant interrupting was positively adolescent and disrespectful. He would go from angry to a mock-familiar tone where he over used “John” – and it appeared petty. It took away from whatever mojo he was working.
On the point of Iran, Obama tried to quote Kissinger. He was wrong. Plain and simple. Kissinger said negotiation should be hald at the Secretary of State level, not at the presidential level. Obama held firm, and the Kissinger reference may be too inside baseball. Voters may not care.
On Iraq v. Afghanistan, it seemed a bit weird for Obama to decry the surge in Iraq – while calling for one in Afghanistan. His position was not clear, and he was on the defensive – he appeared to be struggling with moving to the middle. The middle is not his territory, as his “most liberal” voting record tells us.
McCain was predictably precise. It was a solid win on the facts but the war remains unpopular. Stay tuned for the coming debates. Change is coming, no matter who wins.
Overall, I have to give the night to McCain. For this reason: Obama is supposed to be Mr. Change. But Obama’s campaign has intimated he is inclined to keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. His campaign has claimed success after Secretary of State Condi Rice (not to be confused with Obama adviser Susan) recently returned from Syria.
Hard to argue that McCain would be the third Bush term while Obama is simultaneously praising Bush’s cabinet. So much for being the agent of change. Plus, the American people are all too familiar with the Bush v. McCain rivalry – they simply don’t buy Obama’s narrative on Bush-McCain.
Overall, Obama performed well. I give McCain a narrow win – with this caveat: if the MSM picks up on Obama’s repeated assertions tonight that “John was right” – it could prove to be a big win.
McCain’s strong finish tonight included a line that I found stirring. For a moment, he embodied every combat veteran I have ever known. It was pitch-perfect President McCain: “I know how to heal the wounds of war.”
Time will tell.
UPDATE: Obama was WRONG on Kissinger. Per CNN:
Immediately after the debate, the McCain campaign released a statement from Kissinger backing the Republican nominee’s sentiments on structuring any talks with Iran.
“Sen. McCain is right. I would not recommend the next president of the United States engage in talks with Iran at the presidential level,” Kissinger said in the statement.
“My views on this issue are entirely compatible with the views of my friend Sen. John McCain. We do not agree on everything, but we do agree that any negotiations with Iran must be geared to reality.”