Friday night's televised debate between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama drew a big viewing audience and restarted a presidential campaign which had been interrupted by the still unresolved White House-Congressional effort to craft a financial bailout package. I call the debate a draw, with McCain able to change the subject from his role in bailout discussions and Obama getting a bonus 40 minutes of economic-policy discussion before having to move to McCain's foreign-policy turf.
McCain's on-again, off-again posture toward the debate and his intervention in financial-bailout discussions during the week (more about the financial crisis below) had made him appear impetuous and injudicious. The debate broke a several-day McCain slump and put McCain, the candidate, back on track. He did a generally good job. He was the more aggressive of the two candidates in the debate. Despite being 25 years older than Obama, he showed himself to be alert, articulate, and knowledgeable and not at all at a disadvantage at the podium against his smoother rival.
Obama got a break when moderator Jim Lehrer announced that financial/economic issues — where voters prefer Democrats — would be discussed before the debate got to its announced foreign policy/national security content. As things turned out, the debate was almost half over before it got to the foreign-policy issues which are McCain's strong point.
Presidential-campaign debates normally do no more than reinforce the candidates' supporters, unless one candidate or the other makes a big policy glitch or mistake. Neither made such a mistake Friday night. Both gave their supporters reason for encouragement. Neither appeared discernibly stronger or weaker than the other in the give-and-take over 90 minutes. I expect polling data over the weekend to show Obama-Biden still holding a several-point lead over McCain-Palin but with miles to go and unforeseen events still in store.
Attention now shifts to Thursday night's coming Biden-Palin vice-presidential debate. In that one, Sen. Biden will have to be careful in not appearing to bully or patronize Palin; Gov. Palin will have to prove she can hold her own on tough policy topics with which she is less familiar than Biden.
Meanwhile, the financial bailout is still not nailed down. President Bush and congressional leaders of both parties made upbeat statements, going into the weekend, about the probability that a financial-bailout package could successfully be concluded before the end of the weekend. That is not at all certain.
House Republicans, feeling heat from constituents and being left out of key negotiations, simply put their heads down at the end of the week and refused to buy into a package they regarded as placing taxpayers too greatly in jeopardy. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that the Bush White House had not even consulted or informed House Republican leadership before deciding to take an 80 percent stake in American International Group.
The House GOP leaders make a good point. The bailout, as presently configured, transfers huge resources from taxpayers to the very financial houses which helped create the present crisis. Unless they see some of their own ideas included in the package, House Republicans are likely to dig in. The principal House Democrat in the negotiations, Rep. Barney Frank, has not helped by continuing to make scornful comments about his GOP colleagues. I have known Frank for many years and have a high regard for him, but he has never been able to resist the temptation to deliver a quotable, wicked one-liner — even at the expense of the task in front of him.
Make no mistake, a package finally will emerge from bipartisan negotiations. But it may not be ready as soon as media expect it to be.