B- for McCain; B+ for Obama

Our veteran insider grades the presidential candidates and derides them for a missed opportunity to strongly address the significance of the economic crisis.
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Our veteran insider grades the presidential candidates and derides them for a missed opportunity to strongly address the significance of the economic crisis.
"Events are in the saddle and ride mankind" — Ralph Waldo Emerson

We are living right now a big global shift which makes even presidential politics seem small.

Both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain did creditable jobs in their Tuesday night, Oct. 7, nationally televised debate. Yet neither addressed convincingly the unfolding global financial/economic crisis. In fact, their principal answers on the issue could have been written several weeks ago and did not reflect genuine knowledgeability of what is in front of us.

Now, as to the debate as a political event: McCain, trailing by several points in national polls and being seriously outspent in key states, needed a debate victory or at least outstanding performance to shake things up. What happened, instead, is that Obama probably had a narrow edge — a B-plus performance against McCain's B-minus — and therefore kept his victory train going.

Context was serious

Going into tonight's Obama-McCain debate, here was the context.

  • The Dow Jones average had continued its plunge during the day, despite the Federal Reserve's announcement that it would now buy short-term commercial debt — a huge departure. It reached its lowest closing level in five years.
  • European Union countries, after deriding U.S. financial weakness, continued squabbling among themselves about remedies to be applied to stem EU financial/economic bleeding.
  • President Bush made a relatively effective public appearance earlier in the day, calling for calm and expressing confidence in the long-term financial/economic health of the United States.
  • Rep. Henry Waxman continued to grill Wall Street executives whose firms had failed or been rescued by the recent Bernanke/Paulson bailout. Tuesday it was American International Group (AIG) executives. The day before it had been Lehman Brothers' turn in the barrel.
  • In the presidential campaign itself, Obama had widened his lead in national polls over McCain. Most media coverage focused on the ascendancy of financial/economic issues — turf traditionally favorable to Democrats — but was largely missing the fact that the Obama campaign was outspending McCain, 3-to-1, in major electoral states in the days leading up to the debate. (Obama has foresworn public financing of his campaign and, thus, has been able to raise money well beyond that granted McCain by public financing). Having established a lead, the Obamans were shooting for a breakout.
  • The McCain-Palin campaign, losing momentum and at a disadvantage on bread-and-butter issues, had chosen to attack Obama's credibility and his past associations. The Obama campaign was responding in kind, reviving in particular McCain's role in the Keating Five scandal, which brought down savings and loans. (Yet, in the debate itself, these issues did not arise and were not addressed).

Given the dynamics, McCain had to win tonight's debate outright or make such a strong showing that it was apparent he was not near a 10-count. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, offering gratuitous advice to McCain, stated publicly that McCain in the debate should foreswear his earlier support for the Bernanke/Paulson package and ride the anti-bailout tide running strongly in the country. (In my judgment, this was dreadful advice, counseling a 24-hour about-face on a vital issue). Obama had to avoid a mistake or being drawn into issues he wanted to avoid.

In sports terms, McCain had to throw and connect on a long pass. Obama had to avoid fumbles and turnovers.

Bottom line: McCain had no long gainers. Obama avoided turnovers. Advantage Obama.

Now, about the subject matter

When challenged at the outset of the debate to give their analyses of the crisis and programs for recovery, both candidates fell back on old formulae.

Obama laid the problems to "Bush policies of the past eight years," no more than a political slogan. The present crisis has roots going back at least 20 years, with blame to be shared by various administrations and Congresses, financial institutions, regulators, speculators, and consumers — all dangerously disregarding excess and growing risk in the financial system. McCain, surprisingly, failed to challenge Obama's diagnosis.

Obama said he would reform health care and concentrate on energy and public education as cornerstones of renewal. McCain stressed energy independence and proposed that the Treasury Department "buy up bad home mortgage loans" to bail out middle-income homeowners. Anyone with a background in Economics or Finance 101 would have told them that they were evading the issue.

Covering the usual range of foreign and domestic subjects, Obama and McCain gave their stock answers and finished with their stock closing statements.

As I have written before, most viewers of televised debates do not have substantive backgrounds enabling them to determine the relative merits of the debaters' arguments. If one or another debater does not make a serious error, viewers generally judge winners and losers on the basis of presence and body language. On that basis, Obama seemed more greatly poised and confident. McCain, though 25 years older, seemed the more nervous and tentative of the two. He missed several opportunities for rebuttals to Obama statements. He clearly did not think of them and/or was poorly briefed beforehand.

My readers know that I am a committed Obama supporter and have been since this time last year. However, if I were doing a backstage post-mortem with him, I would at this moment be calling his attention to one bit of his behavior during the debate. Perhaps because of overconfidence, Obama often was smirking while McCain spoke and was seen doing so on camera. Not good. He also came close to the line on a couple occasions of speaking disrespectfully to the more senior McCain. Also not good. Nothing serious but nonetheless a bit of a blemish on an otherwise positive performance.

Four weeks from tonight, Americans will choose their next president. Barring some unforeseen event or surprise, Obama-Biden are on their way to what could be a decisive victory.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.