The first presidential debate Friday evening was rather anticlimactic after the surreal drama leading up to it.
The financial crisis sent Republican nominee Sen. John McCain into his avenging hero posture as he vowed to skip the debate in order to be in Washington where he would lead his party’s negotiations of the Treasury’s $700 billion bailout of the nation’s cratering financial systems. By Thursday, McCain seemed to soften, saying he would come if there was a plan in place. On Friday morning, he finally ended the suspense and agreed to show up.
His opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, all the while coolly asserted that he would be in Oxford, Miss. – with PBS’ Jim Lehrer (the moderator) and the attention of nearly a dozen television networks. The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates also weighed in last week that it would not postpone or cancel the debate.
McCain had little choice but to show up.
Once there, neither candidate wanted to burrow too deeply into the financial crisis and the bailout – which has become so unpopular with voters that neither party is willing to take sole responsibility for passing the Treasury’s plan, even if it means staving off a depression.
(News humor site 23/6 has a one-minute condensed cut of the debate below.)
Instead, Obama and McCain argued over $18 billion in earmarks and McCain, who twice said that he was not “voted Miss Congeniality” of the Senate, again denigrated the $3 million spent to determine whether grizzly bears should be on the endangered species list.
When the debate turned to foreign policy, which was to be the sole topic until the financial crisis became the elephant in the room, McCain exhibited the surefootedness of his more than two decades in Washington.
But most commentators and party pols agreed that neither candidate could claim a win, chalking the contest up to a draw. Even Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, the colorful and outspoken Republican governor of Mississippi, conceded that Obama is “clearly very knowledgeable.”
“McCain did better on the economic questions than he normally does,” Barbour told CBS News’ Katie Couric. “And Obama did well on foreign policy. These are talented people. It’s hard to score a clean kill.”
McCain’s demeanor was more dismissive; several times he called Obama naïve (at one point mispronouncing the word). Lehrer struggled to get the candidates to engage one-on-one, imploring them to talk to each other. But with the candidates standing behind podiums, the staging was all wrong for interactive exchanges. Obama several times addressed his remarks to McCain. But McCain was having none of it. He barely looked at Obama, instead addressing his answers to the camera or Lehrer. After several early appeals to “talk to each other,” Lehrer gave up.
Both candidates exhibited enough self control to make no obvious mannerism gaffs, which, if history is any guide, can speak louder than words. Recall Al Gore’s performance in the first debate with George W. Bush during the 2000 election. Gore’s eye-rolling and voluble sighs of exasperation – which came to be known as “the Gore sigh” – served to alienate voters and elevate Bush.
Next week vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden are scheduled to go at it in the single VP debate of the season. Palin’s shaky performance in interviews with ABC’s Charles Gibson and Couric have made the debate the must-watch event of the week. Perhaps this match-up will live up to the drama.