In the first debate face off between John McCain and Barack Obama, there were no apparent zingers, no sighs, no major gaffes, perhaps not even any easily identifiable video for the networks to pull.
Rather, the gimmick-free presidential debate on Friday was so focused on the sober times and the substance that it was bound to be a disappointment to those who watch for the theatrics of such events.
But the tone is exactly what each candidate needed, after a wild week in Washington and on Wall Street, with nothing close to a mention of lipstick or pigs. You know these are different times when they’re quoting Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The script was set before they even reached the simple stage, mirroring that of past presidential forums. McCain needed to avoid getting overly excited, after weeks in which he’s been criticized for making rash pronouncements. Obama needed to show some heft, after getting the opposite rap for playing it too cool.
Jim Lehrer, not one known for his “gotcha” tactics, nevertheless provided one of the more compelling moments when he tried to nail down each candidate on what, exactly, they would each trim from their campaign wish lists given the huge strain the bailout package would put on the federal budget. Both candidates offered generalities, pledging to plow through the government to look for wasteful spending. “We’ll have to scrub every agency of government,” McCain said.
But Lehrer was dubious, pointing out that neither candidate offered a realistic list of cuts that could meet the pending juggernaut.
Instead, when it came to the economy, each candidate was determined to seize the agenda. McCain cited his opposition to earmarks, “pork barrel spending,” all the while hitting his opponent for requesting some $932 million in spending. Obama, however, cast McCain as a product of the Reagan-led era of deregulation that is now being blamed for causing the current crisis.
“It’s been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who supported this orgy of spending,” Obama said.
Obama at times tried to connect the war in Iraq to the dire state of the economy, although it may not have been as forceful as some of his backers would have liked.
Obama stood sternly, as if to project a presidential pose as avoid the doubts about his lack of experience. McCain sought to address his age with humor, just as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s. When Lehrer press Obama to direct one of his responses to McCain, the Arizona senator quipped, “You afraid I couldnt hear him?”
McCain seemed more sure footed when the debate shifted to foreign affairs, often referring to his experience and citing anecdotes from his travels to foreign countries. He tried to characterize Obama as naive, even using that word itself at one point, while warning that Obama’s plan for withdrawal from Iraq would lead to dangerous consequences.
“The consequences of defeat would have been increased Iranian influence, increased sectarian violence, it would have been a wider war,” McCain said.
But Obama held his own. He sought to characterize Iraq as a strategic blunder in the first place, undermining the war in Afghanistan.
“We have four times more troops in Iraq than in Afghanistan,” he said. “That is a strategic mistake.”
McCain mocked Obama’s pronouncement that he would meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions, even popping up from his podium to mock a what a meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would look like. In other words, a very short conversation when the Iranian leader is making sweeping threats on Israel.
But Obama hit back by citing former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a McCain adviser, who also endorsed the idea of talking to Iran without preconditions.
There were questionable turns of phrase. McCain probably didn’t help himself by championing offshore oil drilling as a “bridge” to alternative energy by referring to the idea as “exploiting these resources.” Obama cited his consistency in referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard “as a terrorist organization,” even though during the primary he questioned Hillary Clinton’s support of a resolution that did just that.
But those factual points aren’t likely to consume the next few days of hindsight. Rather, it will be the atmosphere, and on that note it is hard to see this first matchup as anything other than a serious reckoning of serious times.