With a presidential and vice presidential debate behind their campaigns, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama went at it again on Tuesday evening, sparring in a town hall format. OFB's Editor-in-Chief, Timothy R. Butler, and contributing editor Jason Kettinger analyze
Jason Kettinger: This debate started horribly. Any of us who have followed these proceedings for 18 months—and I have—could recite the respective lines by heart. On a personal note, I am not angry at the last 8 years, nor at the failed policies of George W. Bush. I might use the phrase, “vaguely dissappointed.” On the other hand, McCain needs to know that I neither celebrate, nor believe in, his alleged independence. We don't need a contrarian; we need ideas.
Phrases like, “the most liberal Senator” and “tax and spend” have no meaning as attack lines when a coherent philosophy outlining the relation between man and the State is missing. The only counterpoint to what Obama is offering is a vigorous defense of capitalism and markets, which McCain is clearly unable to do.
He must say that it is immoral to restrict the so-called free market as a matter of anthropology, philosophy, or even theology. Otherwise, it looks as though Obama is modifying markets by way of regulations to make them more free or just, and it's hard to quibble with that. I give a slight edge to McCain in this section for mentioning Obama ties to Fannie and Freddie, and for saying that defense appropriations are corrupt.
Obama once again showed his depth and ability to understand foreign policy, which some supposed was a weakness. Though this section was very even, it was notable for its agreement. I cheer that development, because it means that alleged differences are means to an electoral end, a way to cheer one's entrenched supporters, and not substantial. I grant the slightest of edges to Obama here. Interestingly, they both essentially punted on the humanitarian intervention question. McCain has the most to lose here; Obama can coast on the reality that a hypothetical intervention doesn't cost you anything, and gets you free sainthood points.
In terms of substance, McCain has barely won. In terms of style, McCain sounds desperate. The Arizona senator's attacks slid off Obama like rainwater. He needs to stop attacking Obama himself, and focus on the problems with statism. The overall score is 1-1, but with a decided edge for Obama.
Timothy R. Butler: The real loser in this debate was America. Unfortunately, while we could have had 10 Town Hall meetings if Obama had really been willing to debate McCain on the issues, as he claimed he was, we only got one lousy one. Tom Brokaw, while good at enforcing the rules of the debate, was not nearly so good at picking out the questions to ask from amongst those submitted — the questions he picked were largely parallel to those of the debate less than two weeks earlier, leading one to wonder if Mr. Brokaw had simply not seen that debate.
Both candidates performances were relatively even, with each oddly coming up strong in their respective weak areas. McCain appeared most engaged and directed in the sections that focused on the economy, finally going on offense concerning the economic crisis, by strongly presenting his own work to try to prevent it and suggesting how Obama (and his fellow travelers) helped to bring the crisis on. This presents a portion of the narrative that has been discussed by Sen. McCain's campaign but has not been very well presented by the candidate himself. Love it or hate it, McCain's mortgage rescue plan also stall Obama's attempts to paint McCain as someone only concerned with businesses and not individuals.
On the other hand, McCain appeared relatively weak on issues such as how America should respond to an attack on Israel. He gave fine answers, but lacked the sort of strength we might expect from McCain. While Obama was hardly robust, that he even held his own with McCain here was essentially a win for him.
It was only in the last segment, when Sen. McCain invoked some soft echoes of the rousing end of his acceptance speech in reply to the question, “What do you know you don't know,” that McCain seemed to spring alive again. Why doesn’t McCain keep repeating the enthusiastic call to “fight with me” that served him so well in August? Right now, Senator, people want someone to fight for them and with them.
All in all, McCain might have been said to have won the debate, but not by as much as he could have, and given his weak polling, a win would have been beneficial. Obama, while not particularly strong either, only needed to keep from losing support and he surely managed that in this second go-round.