“This is not a debate”

By , 27 September, 2008, 1 Comment

So said my mother, 9:56 pm ET last night, or 2/3 of the way through the first Presidential back-and-forth. Despite Jim Lehrer’s best efforts to force the candidates to talk to one another and really duke it out on the issues, they stuck to their canned stump speeches. McCain recycled his favorite gems (like that “Miss Congeniality” line) twice in the same evening.

To the candidates’ credit, the exchange last night was wonkish, policy-centered, which is how I like my politics. But McCain failed to make connections between details (pork spending) and his broader vision (anyone?) while Obama failed to bring any of the passion that marks his broad vision speeches to policy positions. Even the NYTimes called him a technocrat. It’s almost as though he CARES more about telling us what America should look like than grappling with how to get there. A president who CAN’T get excited about detail is just as bad as one who can’t see the forest for the trees. The best policy wonk leaders of the C20th–FDR, LBJ, Reagan and Clinton–could do both: they had vision, they had policies and they could explain in accessible detail how the two connected.

Indeed, the most exciting part of the debate was the sideshow of comments I was recieving over IM and text:

(After J McC stumbles on some foreign words) “McCain can’t pronouce ‘Ahmedinejad’ or ‘Pakistan,’ just ‘Petraeus.'”

(As he continues to tout his foreign policy experience) “It seems John McCain has been doing a lot of traveling lately…has he ever sat in his Senate seat, ever?”

(As he promises to love and care for veterans) “All the vets can come and stay in one of my many houses, love, John McCain. PS. My wife will give them free beer.”

Granted, John McCain had a lot of his own zingers to throw at Obama. My personal favorite:

“I have looked in Vladimir Putin’s eyes and all I saw was three letters…K.G.B.”

Which, sort of, gets us back to the point. On foreign policy, the apparent topic, it’s not clear that either candidate really schooled the other. Where they did break some new ground–on the question of invading Pakistan to catch bin Laden (Obama pro, McCain anti)–McCain had the more nuanced and wiser view. But since foreign policy is meant to be McCain’s zone, all Obama had to do was stay standing to exceed expectations. That puts the race today as tied as it ever was…it’s up to the veeps debate to change the game.

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