It took some time to get there but the moderator of tonight's presidential debate did succeed in his announced goal of getting the presidential candidates to talk with one another. In a series of often sharp exchanges over issues ranging from tax cuts to the war in Iraq and presidential leadership, and squared off against one another in a debate that summed up a year of campaigning and likely left the race just as close as it was going in.
The candidates mostly stuck to the familiar talking points from the campaign trail but out of the boilerplate positions emerged some striking dispositions of both. McCain at times appeared almost dismayed that was forced to share the stage with this political upstart. That came across in body language, occasional dismayed laughs and direct zingers.
Time and again, McCain claimed that Obama just did not "understand" the issue at hand. And at one point he mocked the Obama's campaign's now-defunct campaign "seal," saying of meeting with adversarial foreign leaders, "I'm not going to set the White House visitors schedule before I'm president of the United States. I don't even have a seal yet." The most direct example came during an argumentative exchange about the wisdom of meeting with the Iranian president. "So let me get this right," McCain said, exasperated. "We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, "We're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth," and we say, "No, you're not"? Oh, please."
For his part, Obama spent a good deal of the evening appearing to be on the defensive, or at least trying to counter McCain's parries, especially on foreign policy. At times, he seemed over-eager to jump in and clear up what he felt was a mischaracterization and then went to great lengths to demonstrate his knowledge of every issue.
One of Obama's strengths was demonstrating empathy and understanding for average Americans, but he wasn't always successful in that either. Kicking off the debate with a question about the financial crisis, Obama allowed that voters are wondering, "how's it going to affect me?" He never answered the question, instead launching into a litany of economic principles. Neither candidate was eager to say what programs they would push aside because of the financial situation but Obama spent time talking about the things he would not put off, none of which seemed particularly urgent.
But most of the debate was focused on foreign policy and international issues. Both campaigns naturally felt their guy got the better of those exchanges. Obama spokesperson Robert Gibbs, who said the defining moment of the debate was when his candidate pointed out the incorrect assumptions McCain had made before the war in Iraq, said Obama got the better of it. "Barack Obama looked stronger on foreign policy than John McCain," he said. "He was in command of the issues, in command of the debate. I think he far-and-away passed over the hurdle of demonstrating to the American people he's capable to be commander-in-chief."
John McCain seemed to relish the foreign policy questions and pulled no punches about what he thought of his rival's positions. At one point, he said that Obama was not only naïve but "dangerous" because of his previous statements about using military action in Pakistan. McCain's campaign manager Steve Schmidt echoed that after the debate and said his candidate "pointed out the naïveté and bad judgment" of Obama "on a range of issues."
When all the dust is settled, it may well be that dynamic which proves the most critical. McCain did display his depth and breadth of knowledge about the world but Obama didn't falter. And it seemed at times that the Republican had returned to a strategy of contrasting his "experience" with Obama.
Asked afterwards whether the campaign had returned to a "experience versus change" dynamic after weeks of McCain talking about the latter, Schmidt said the two are interconnected. "Senator McCain has a record of leading reform and change and he has the experience to bring about change," he said. "Senator Obama is a very gifted politician … but he does not have a record of bringing about reform or fighting to bring about change." Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe countered, "what John McCain did tonight is make no case for change at all."
If McCain's mission was to come out in this debate and demonstrate his command of foreign policy while putting his opponent on the defensive, he succeeded. And if Obama's goal was to rise to that and demonstrate he was up to the challenge, he met that as well. But if change is truly the decisive issue, Obama may well retain what appears to be a slight edge in this race.