I had the near-death experience of watching the first presidential debate with a small group of hard core liberal intellectuals. The consensus in the room was that McCain won, and that Obama was surprisingly weak. McCain stuck to his message that Obama was naïve, that he "didn't get it." McCain was surprisingly lucid and forceful. He reminded us of Reagan. His manner was folksy and reassuring, but tough. He knew his subject. He spoke fluidly, and didn't come across as reckless or over-the-hill.
Obama did score a few strong lines, but the overall impression was that he was on the defensive more of the time than McCain was. When Obama said "John's right" for the seventh time, I had to be restrained from throwing a chair at the television. The only comforting thought was that in twelve hours, few would be thinking about foreign policy, since the financial crash would be back center stage, and Obama is handling that well while McCain isn't. Indeed, the first third of the debate, we felt, was Obama's. And next week, we can look forward to Sarah Palin coming apart in primetime.
But then, after a restless night, we awakened to find that we had been living in a parallel universe. Evidently, it was only a bad dream. Somehow, the rest of America thought it was a draw at worst, or gave it to Obama on points. Even the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal scored it about even.
I can only conclude that my friends and I are policy wonks, and were surprised and impressed at McCain's grasp of detail. But the average viewer didn't hear what we heard. The typical viewer heard a blizzard of obscure, inside-Washington references, and saw a garrulous old man, who occasionally stepped over the line into mean or condescending.
Obama had a few great moments, but only a few. This was his best:
John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong.
But Obama almost seems uncomfortable being this directly critical. He passed up several opportunities to take it to McCain. I don't know whether this is result of bad debate prep, or whether it reflects the candidate's own reluctance to be pugnacious. I suspect the latter.
It is possible, and necessary, in a debate, to tell an opponent when he is way off base, in a way that sounds resolute rather than nasty, and communicates leadership--the kind of leadership Americans expect in a commander-in-chief. Obama did that only reluctantly, and under duress, which made him seem defensive. Obama is still determined to use debates to communicate his own positive vision, which is fine up to a point--but not when the other guy is using you as a punching bag.
What might have Obama said?
Senator McCain, your first decision as a potential commander-in-chief was to pick Sarah Palin as your running mate. As America has gotten a better look at her, there are serious doubts emerging about whether she could really be our commander-in-chief. I expect people will get an even closer look at the vice presidential debate next week, and I'd urge everyone to watch. If our people are weary of Dick Cheney serving as George W. Bush's de facto president, God only knows who'd really be in charge if Sarah Palin was president. Senator, you are the oldest man ever to run for president. I certainly wish you good health and long life. But what could you have been thinking?
Senator McCain, I'm really glad that you're here. This is a critical election, and the American people need to hear us debate. But you very nearly backed out. You said that you wouldn't debate because we needed to put the financial rescue package above politics. But few people believe that. Your involvement, meeting with far-right House Republicans prior to our White House meeting, very nearly killed the deal. That wasn't putting country above politics. And tonight, we are no closer to final legislation than we were when you tried to avoid appearing tonight. So why did you want to deny the American people this important debate, and why did you change your mind?
Senator McCain, you prize your reputation as a "maverick." In my dictionary, a maverick has two possible meanings. It can mean someone who goes his own way, who doesn't follow the herd, in this case it means a Republican not tainted by George W. Bush. But a maverick can also mean someone who is reckless, and arbitrary, and inconsistent, and unreliable. Senator, I admired you when you stood up to George W. Bush on the torture at Abu Ghraib; and when you stood up to the far-right on the question of whether immigrants should be treated like human beings. And when you resisted the ultra-right wing zealots on the issue of reproductive rights. But you've reversed course on every one of the issues. You caved in to President Bush on the issue of torture. You now oppose the bipartisan immigration bill that you drafted, the McCain-Kennedy bill. And you and Sarah Palin are now the darlings of the far-right. Senator, just what kind of a maverick are you?
A presidential campaign is a battle for definition. Barack Obama dodged a bullet Friday night. But McCain did a better job of defining Obama than Obama did of defining McCain. With the economic disaster, this election and the nature of his opponent are now Obama's to frame. Voters are not just looking for an admirable and polite young senator. They are looking for a little more steel.
Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect and Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, has just published Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (Chelsea Green). He is blogging daily about the election and the economic crisis at www.obamaschallenge.com.
Follow Robert Kuttner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rkuttner