We all knew what would happen. This second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain was going to be a slugfest. Journalists, who seem to forget that their job is to report what actually happened not predict what might occur, had been warning about it for days – although cautioning with the kind of glee that suggested they were as hopeful as appalled.
The overwrought warnings of mudslinging made the actual event appear all the more subdued. Unwilling to ignore the undecided voters’ earnest questions as the stock market imploded, both Obama and McCain answered the questions carefully, soberly, respectfully. Most of the tension centered around the moderator Tom Brokaw’s timekeeping frustrations, as he repeatedly chided the candidates about keeping to their agreement. Brokaw seemed to forget that a moderator’s job is to go with the flow, that the American people tuned in to hear the presidential rivals not monitor their ability to follow some artificial rules which, Brokaw repeatedly reminded the candidates, they had “signed off on.”
So the good news for moderates and people who seek political civility was that, for a change, the gravitational forces that usually polarize American politics were checked Tuesday night. The dire, breathless predictions were, of course, thinly disguised encouragements for McCain to come out swinging, given that they were linked to claims that this was his last chance to shake up the campaign. Usually these are self-fulfilling forecasts, creating expectations and then facts in the guise of guessing.
But the bad news was that the debate was boring and pedestrian. Once again, both candidates offered up warmed over – but subdued – denunciations of the economic bogeymen of this current crisis – the Bushian deregulators, the greedy Wall Streeters, the corrupt Washingtonians. But both of them described the bad guys in such vague terms as stock stick figures that it seemed to be more ritualistic than analytical. When asked “How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got — got us into this global economic crisis,” McCain missed an easy opportunity to bash the Democratic Congress. Here was his chance to change the narrative a bit, to point out how Democrats like Charles Schumer, Chris Dodd, and Barney Frank took big bucks from Wall Street lobbyists to indulge the frenzy. Instead, McCain kept it vague and generic.
The scariest thing about hearing both candidates sling clichés about the financial crisis is to realize how clueless they are – and will remain on January 20. If two smart, talented politicians, with such a clear incentive to give a thoughtful, reassuring analysis and plan can sound so lost, it is hard to know just who will magically appear on the scene to navigate the crisis.
For me, the highlight of the night came before the debate began. One TV news commentator reported that six million people submitted questions for the two candidates over the internet. One could easily spin this as proof of just how many people are so confused about the last few weeks. I prefer to see if as powerful testament to the vitality of democracy and the intensity of citizen engagement as we count down to November 4.