I suppose a lot of you watched the debate last night. I did, though I’m surprised I managed to sit through all of it and after it was over I was left with a sense of anti-climax. I had been hoping for some verbal jousting, a bit of cut and thrust that would have left blood up the walls. Instead what we got was largely recitation, and it was in many places an exchange of speeches rather than a debate. One of the definitions of a debate is an argument. I wanted a lot of arguing!
So, who won? I’d say Obama, but not by very much (though if I lived in a red state and had watched the debate in my undershirt on my second-hand recliner in my trailer, with a beer in one hand and a Lucky in the other, I probably would have said that McCain won). He started out sounding very stilted, as though he was unsure of his footing, moving very cautiously. McCain came over quite well at first but morphed into a tired, testy old man. McCain wasn’t afraid to lie, and Obama failed to call him on his lies on several occasions. When McCain complained of the half a trillion dollars that the USA owes to China, Obama failed to point out that that money was borrowed to pay for the war in Iraq, though he did make some limp comment about borrowing to fund government programs.
The debate was supposed to be devoted to foreign policy, but it took a while to get there, because, not surprisingly, by force majeure the economic meltdown took first place. When they did get onto it, McCain was at pains to remind us constantly that he has, it seems, been everywhere and met everyone in every trouble spot in the world. Maybe he has, but do the voters care? They have twice elected a president who thought that a brief trip to Mexico was enough foreign experience to occupy the Oval Office. Obama came over as the smoother operator of the two while McCain seemed to offer a policy of stubbornness.
I don’t know about you, but I got the feeling that both men realize that the situation in Iraq is hopeless, but of course neither of them could say so. Obama talked about a phased withdrawal over a sixteen month period, while McCain talked about victory. His definition of victory, however, was more a description of an honourable departure with, by implication, a puppet regime installed in Baghdad. I don’t think even McCain thinks there can be a victory there (the US army there is after all an army of occupation) but he had to pretend he does. I expect that his priority above all will be to avoid a repetition of the undignified defeat in and retreat from Vietnam. The Iraq war is a poisoned chalice that Bush will hand over to his successor, and I think both men know that the next president will have to make the best of a very bad job, but they both tried to treat the matter with a measure of optimism that I am sure they don’t really feel.
It wasn’t till almost the very end that McCain casually dropped his having been a prisoner of war into the conversation. Ironic cheers from our living room. We had been wondering how long it would take him. Earlier, he had introduced some sentimental mush about a widow giving him a bracelet. You could almost hear people saying “Awwww!” all over the red states. Then Obama trumped him beautifully with “I’m wearing a bracelet too.” Was that planned, or simply fortuitous? Either way, it was a masterstroke.
I very much doubt that anyone who has already decided which way to vote actually changed his mind after watching the debate. The undecideds probably still haven’t decided yet. There are more debates to come, so there is no hurry. Next week the vice-presidential candidates will go head to head. That should be interesting. I wonder what the 2008 equivalent of “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.” will be. I’m rather looking forward to it.