By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-28-08
Both presidential nominees and the American people failed to follow the typical script for the first presidential debate on Friday night — to all their credit. Usually, an hour-and-a-half of policy talk ends up being reduced to a four-word slam, a grimace, a gaffe, a gesture. This time, the debate about the debate, the analysis of ninety minutes of foreign and domestic policy talk, ended up being about the ninety minutes of foreign and domestic policy talk.
This news was particularly welcome because both candidates’ behavior was disappointing in the two weeks leading up to the debate. During the week of the financial meltdown, as Washington insiders ranging from the former Wall Street titan Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson to the crusading liberal Congressman Barney Frank cooperated with each other seeking a bailout, the candidates acted ridiculous. Here was a leadership opportunity for both Barack Obama and John McCain. Either of them could have risen to the challenge, offering a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of the problem – and proposing a creative solution to the troubles of both Wall Street and Main Street. Instead, both offered simplistic, idiotic, demagogic postures scapegoating Wall Street — and the other guy.
Both needed to start with some risky, bipartisan criticism. Democratic Senators such as Chris Dodd and Charles Schumer, who happily took millions from lobbyists and bankers to protect Wall Street’s and the two Freddies’ interests, are as responsible for the lax federal oversight as the most ideological anti-big-government Bushies. Had either candidate pointed out the sinners in his own party as well as in the other party, had either then worked with the financial whiz kids surrounding each campaign to present a bold solution, the American people would have cheered enthusiastically. Instead, both abdicated, allowing the leadership and statesmanship to come from the White House, the Federal Reserve Bank, and Capitol Hill.
By week two, when both helped improve the bailout package, Senator McCain stood out as a particular bumbler. Attempting to appear bipartisan, he announced he was suspending his campaign and wanted to cancel the debate to avoid playing politics at a time like this. Obama wisely held his ground, insisting on showing up for what could have been a ninety-minute televised freebie on all the major networks. There was no reason why McCain could not take time at 9 PM on a Friday to address the American people. American democracy puts a premium on sticking to its quadrennial presidential electoral timetable. If Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt could run for reelection during the Civil War and World War II respectively, John McCain could show up to debate. Fortunately, for his sake and for history, McCain came to his senses, hid behind the figleaf of “progress” on the bailout talks, and showed up.
The results were impressive. While neither delivered a memorable line or a knock-out punch, both acquitted themselves honorably. John McCain was dominant, especially in the second, foreign-policy-oriented, half. He showed he was vigorous and fast on his feet, not at all the plodding septuagenarian he appeared to be during the summer. Barack Obama was equally impressive, refusing to concede or be cowed by McCain’s body blows. In fighting the older, more experienced foreign policy expert to a draw in the debate devoted to foreign policy, Obama repeated John Kennedy’s accomplishment in simply sharing the stage and appearing to be the equal of his better-known and more experienced rival Richard Nixon in 1960 (although in that case, Kennedy and Nixon actually were peers; it was just Nixon’s eight years as Vice President that set the two apart so dramatically).
The American people gained by watching such a substantive discussion by two clearly talented candidates during a crisis. It was instructive to see where the candidates agreed as much as where they disagreed. Both candidates’ horror at the thought of a nuclear Iran, their criticism of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, their concern over the excesses of Wall Street, demonstrated a common “Main Street” sensibility. The two candidates’ clashes, particularly about the Iraq war, revealed that the American people have a clear and significant choice to make in November. Here, McCain was particularly strong, having been vindicated by the surge. Obama faltered, trying to repudiate the Iraq invasion without disrespecting the troops.
The first debate may not have ensured a victory for either candidate but it may have helped Americans realize that regardless of who wins in November, the new president will be smart, sincere, and ready to lead.