The rules of sports metaphors in politics are as follows: primary campaigns are marathons, general election campaigns are horse-races, the final weeks leading up to Election Day are sprints—but debates are boxing matches.
And in last nights' first round debate—call it the Melee at Ole Miss—neither candidate delivered a knock-out punch.
Careful scorekeepers may judge that John McCain won the first round on points. The legendary brawler, a few years past his prime, defied political gravity to battle a younger opponent—it was toughness versus talent, experience versus eloquence.
McCain was fighting on his home turf—foreign policy—and he went on the offensive as soon as the topic was raised (the first half hour ended up dedicated to the market crisis), backing Obama into an extended defense of words like "without pre-conditions," while presenting himself as the real candidate of reform by attacking the excesses of his own party.
But Obama may have lured McCain into a rope-a-dope, playing down pre-debate expectations with the knowledge that future debates will shift to his strength on domestic policy. McCain's GOP-playbook attempts to cast the Democrat as dangerously naïve may have gone too far—repeated statements that Obama didn't "understand" the issues came across as dangerously close to condescending, highlighting the underlying generational divide.
Obama knew the stats and facts, but he was passionate not professorial—there was no evidence of his oft-rumored glass jaw or lack of killer instinct. He was a disciplined defender of his Democratic beliefs, unafraid to mix it up with the fellow Senator who he kept calling "John" to create the impression of a level playing field. Most importantly, the confident new-comer from the challengers' party showed that he could hold his own in the presidential ring. To many Americans, that's as good as a win.
Seizing the center
In boxing, like politics, the candidate who controls the center of the ring—and forces his opponent to fight with his back against the ropes—is best positioned to win.
John McCain started fighting for the center in the first moments of the debate—using his opening statement to offer best wishes to the newly hospitalized Ted Kennedy (usually the subject of Republican attacks, not accolades), and then repeatedly stressing his decades-long bipartisan record to distance himself from the Bush administration.
The only effective canned line of the debate also reflected this centrist theme ("It's hard to reach across the aisle from that far on the left")—while also taking a clean shot at Obama's liberal Senate voting record.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, might be the first candidate in modern political history to run from the center in the party primary and then move to the left in the general election.
Obama's rise as the inspirational post-partisan candidate ("there are no red states, there are no blue states, there is only the United States") was what kept him from being labeled the left's anti-Iraq protest candidate. He won in places like Iowa because he was the non-polarizing alternative to Hillary Clinton's establishment candidacy.
But since winning the nomination, Obama has spent more time trying to grow the Democratic Party rolls from the ground up, rather than trying to win independent and centrist voters over to a larger common cause. This was evident again in last night's debate.
Elections are won by the candidate who connects with moderates and the middle class.
Obama clearly understood the need to reach out to the middle class—his campaign quickly released an ad pointing out that McCain never used the phrase during the debate. But Obama never uttered the words "independent" or "bipartisan", which McCain did three times.
This ideological mindset was reflected in Obama's approah to the economy – all Democratic populism, repeated criticism of trickledown economics and calls for new regulation with no mention of the more obvious Main Street desire for a return to fiscal responsibility, or of the basic bottom-line generational irresponsibility of deficit spending.
And when asked for examples of where he would cut to bring our budget back into balance, Obama did not have immediate examples. Instead, he reiterated his spending priorities before back-ending into a revenue savings argument based on de-escalating the Iraq war and raising taxes on the top 5%, before mentioning the comparatively modest savings that can come from targeting Medicaid fraud.
Bill Clinton understood the value of offering to slay a few liberal sacred cows to convince moderate voters that he was a different kind of Democrat. Barack Obama at least so far has not—and that may account for why the race remains so tight despite nearly 90% of Americans believing we're moving in the wrong direction.
The ghosts of debates past
Boxing and politics are two sports where the past is always present—current competitors are endlessly compared to past legends.
For Republicans, there are is Reagan and the distant ghost of rugged reform Republican Teddy Roosevelt.
For Democratic candidates, there is JFK for energy and cool optimism, and Bill Clinton for ability to connect with moderates and the middle class.
And the more thoughtful members of the TV commentariat—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, Jeff Greenfield and David Gergen—function like the fedora-wearing and cigar-waving boxing historian Bert Sugar, offering colorful perspective while reminding us that politics is history in the present-tense.
This debate offered the American people two historic candidates with real differences—a substantive spectacle that dwarfed the Bush-Kerry debates of four years ago.
But as strong as the combat was, I found myself occasionally missing the high drama moments of the last "change" election to take place during a time of fiscal crisis.
Neither McCain or Obama was able to root the current economic climate in common-sense outrage as Ross Perot did in 1992, when he said "We are sitting on a ticking bomb, folks, because we have mismanaged this country and this economy."
And the summation that Obama might have used to elevate his campaign was given better by Bill Clinton 16 years ago: "This debate tonight has made crystal clear a challenge that is as old as America—the choice between hope and fear, between change and more of the same."
With two presidential debates left—and an unusually high-stakes VP debate next week—there is plenty more history to be made in the 39 days left before Election Day. And if you like politics and care about the debates that help decide the future of our country—this is as good as it gets.