I didn’t see it that way, but that is certainly what the networks are saying. CNN’s poll of debate viewers called it 54-30 for Obama. I thought the debate was pretty even and generally devoid of fireworks. The only way I can account for such a margin is it reflects the attitude the public held before the debate began. They think the race is over. Since the “Bradley effect” could still impact the race, I’m not going to say that Obama is a shoo-in. But he’s getting close.
The question before the debate was whether McCain could make some sort of breakthrough that could change the trajectory of the presidential race. The town hall format was supposed to give him an edge, but he has been so mishandled by his campaign staff that he has lost a lot of his spontaneity. The debate became a regurgitation of talking points, on both sides. The pseudo-town hall format did not help. The rules barred any possibility of an exchange between a candidate and a member of the public, or between the candidates themselves.
The only surprise in the debate was that McCain did not try to develop the character issue. His strongest point during the whole campaign has been that the voters know who he is – although the way his campaign has positioned him has not been the McCain we thought we knew – and we don’t know who Obama is. In a debate with media types asking the questions, there would have been questions directed at Obama about William Ayers. There would have been questions directed at McCain about Sarah Palin’s tactics. (I think all three of the moderators so far, Lehrer, Ifill, Brokaw, have done lousy jobs. Let me in, coach.)
I thought McCain missed a great opportunity in the beginning of the debate. Obama had answered the first question, about the economic crisis, with his standard response that it was the result of the failed policies of George W. Bush and the Republican approach to allowing Wall Street to operate without regulations. Here’s what McCain said (from the transcript):
Now, I have a plan to fix this problem and it has got to do with energy independence. We’ve got to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t want us very – like us very much. We have to keep Americans’ taxes low. All Americans’ taxes low. Let’s not raise taxes on anybody today.
We obviously have to stop this spending spree that’s going on in Washington. Do you know that we’ve laid a $10 trillion debt on these young Americans who are here with us tonight, $500 billion of it we owe to China?
We’ve got to have a package of reforms and it has got to lead to reform prosperity and peace in the world. And I think that this problem has become so severe, as you know, that we’re going to have to do something about home values.
You know that home values of retirees continues to decline and people are no longer able to afford their mortgage payments. As president of the United States, Alan, I would order the secretary of the treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes – at the diminished value of those homes and let people be able to make those – be able to make those payments and stay in their homes.
Is it expensive? Yes. But we all know, my friends, until we stabilize home values in America, we’re never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy. And we’ve got to give some trust and confidence back to America.
McCain actually had a bold new idea: buying up the bad home loan mortgages and renegotiating the value of the securities at the diminished value of the homes. But he completely blew the presentation. He recycled all his old mantras first: energy independence, low taxes, stop the spending spree. By the time he got to his bold idea, people had already stopped listening. Doesn’t anybody on his campaign team know how to present an argument? McCain should have come out with guns blazing. “I have a plan to allow Americans to remain in their homes and pay off their mortgages. The government is going to buy these mortgages and renegotiate them to reflect the diminished value of these homes. Then homeowners will be able to afford the payments. As the values rise, the taxpayers will get their money back.”
As we say in the writing business, he buried his lead.
I think the debate was a draw. And a draw for McCain is a big loss.