In Debate II, John McCain twice laid out the criteria for how the American people should judge the candidates: In tough times, we need someone with a steady hand on the tiller.
By that measure, Obama was the clear winner. He was centered where McCain was scattered. Forceful where McCain was forced. Presidential where McCain was petulant.
In the first debate, McCain wouldn't look at Obama. In this one, he referred to him as "that one." The contempt was palpable, and unpalatable.
In the run-up to the debate, McCain lowered himself into the sewer in a desperate attempt to portray Obama as dangerous, untrustworthy, a risk too big to take.
But Obama's measured reasonableness totally countered that caricature. You could fault Obama for not being particularly inspiring, but you could not miss the rock steady competence he exuded -- authoritatively delivering substantive answers to questions on the economy, health care, taxes, and foreign policy.
He scored with his history lesson, reminding voters of the economy the Republicans inherited, and how they squandered that inheritance.
He scored with his reminder of how much the war in Iraq is costing America and the enormous strain that puts on our economy -- as well as our national security.
He scored when he declared that affordable health care is a "right" of every American and not, as McCain put it, a "responsibility" of... he actually didn't specify who.
And Obama scored big when he gave voice to the vast gulf between the two candidates' -- and the two parties' -- position on the role of government in our lives, invoking JFK's commitment to put a man on the moon in 10 years as an example of what can be done in fueling a new alternative energy-based economy, and pointing out how government investment played a key role in developing the tech advances that have driven our economy for the last two decades.
McCain, like Palin last week, couldn't decide if government is the enemy or the deep-pocketed benefactor that is going to buy up all the bad mortgages in America.
Is "a government-bought house on every lot" the 21st century equivalent of "a chicken in every pot"?
McCain also provided the debate's strangest moments, twice chiding Obama for backing an "overhead projector" in a planetarium, and raising the idea of "gold-plated Cadillac" insurance policies that pay for hair transplants. Huh?
McCain also told us he knows how to fix the economy, knows how to win wars, and knows how to capture bin Laden. Is there a reason he's keeping all these a secret?
The debate ended on a question Tom Brokaw described as having "a certain Zen-like quality": "What don't you know and how will you learn it?"
Both men used the opportunity to pivot from the Moment of Zen into impassioned but familiar stump speech stories about single moms (Obama) and absent fathers (McCain), about the American Dream (Obama) and the country put first (McCain), about the need for fundamental change (Obama) and the desire for another opportunity to serve (McCain).
At the end of the debate, Brokaw asked McCain to get out of the way of his Teleprompter, so he could sign off.
Brokaw might as well have been speaking on behalf of the future: Senator McCain can you please get out of the way so we can get on with it?
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