Sen. John McCain tried to roll over Barack Obama with condescending sarcasm in their first debate but in the end the Democratic presidential nominee stood up to him in a calm, presidential manner.
Was he too calm? Did he pull his punches in an effort to look presidential? Not really. The viewers got a clear choice: a reasoned and reasonable Obama versus an old-fashioned Cold Warrior who would keep us in Iraq endlessly and extend the boundaries we must defend to Georgia and Ukraine.
I was disappointed at the beginning. Moderator Jim Lehrer tried to force these prospective presidents to open up and tell the country what they would do to solve the nation’s worst financial crisis since the 1930s.
McCain mumbled that he would vote for the rescue bill being written in Congress. “Sure,” he said. Obama said he wanted to see the details. There should have been more. Will the taxpayers get an equity share of companies receiving aid? How will mortgage holders facing foreclosure be protected? These and other questions have been well debated in recent days, and there is enough information around for both men to have said more.
Obama did not hammer McCain for his long support of deregulation. Nor did Obama plaster McCain with the Bush label, as he did so well in Denver when he accepted the Democratic nomination. No doubt Obama’s supporters wanted him to slam McCain on the issue and were disappointed that he did not. But his reasonable approach worked when the two candidates got to the announced subject of the debate at the University of Mississippi, national security and foreign affairs.
McCain emerged as a die-hard advocate of the neocon philosophy that mired the United States in a senseless war in Iraq, insisting that the nation will attain its goal of coming “home with victory and honor.” It was as if he did not know that thousands of American troops had died in a war that was started under false pretenses.
He voiced the neocon line of going it alone—or at least not going with any other nation unless it unconditionally supported the United States.
He attacked Obama for wanting to kill Osama bin Laden if we found him hiding within Pakistan’s boundaries. McCain said he would not make such a statement. He spoke warmly of the deposed president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, saying he had saved “a failing state.”
McCain’s game plan was clear. He tried to treat Obama as a rookie or even a schoolboy. His attacks were blunt and humorless. When the camera caught him listening to Obama’s replies, he had sort of a smirk, as if he were all-knowing. His attitude toward Obama was something like, “Kid, you don’t know what you are talking about.”
McCain pandered like mad, especially to supporters of Israel. Obama had said he would talk to the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in conjunction with other countries and after his aides had settled on conditions with lower-level Iranian officials. McCain said Obama wanted to “sit across the table with someone who called Israel a stinking corpse.”
Obama replied in a deliberate, thoughtful manner. He noted that the Bush administration was now working with Russia and European allies to stop a nuclear Iran. The United States, he said, “cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran.” But he added that the “notion of by not talking to people you are punishing them doesn’t work.”
The McCain camp, researching past debates, obviously came to the conclusion that aggression wins. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were aggressive when they won their debates, but their attacks were tempered by their charm.
McCain had no charm Friday night. He was snide. He was mean. He was all attack, and all over the lot. It is easy to see that his demeanor could have put off a lot of people.
Obama was calm but passionate in the way he stood his ground. He answered McCain but didn’t sink to his level. He looked like a man who could be president, which undoubtedly was his goal when the debate began.
AP photo / Chip Somodevilla, pool
Barack Obama and John McCain address a question during the first presidential debate Friday at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Jim Lehrer of PBS moderates from the center.