Days of high-stakes political chicken culminated Friday as presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama stepped onto the stage together. After skirmishing about whether there should even be a debate, given the financial crisis, the two potential leaders of the free world took to their podiums for a full-on battle to settle who had the better foreign policy.
Once that photo-op was complete, everything went downhill. A genuine debate did not take place.
Admittedly, the Democratic and Republican nominees adequately presented their competing policies and personal qualities to a significant audience of undecided voters. They explained key positions on economics, the war on terror and other global issues, and they gave voters an important glimpse at the experience and judgment of each.
Unfortunately, both surrendered what could have been a pivotal opportunity to showcase the future president’s policy expertise, intelligence and empathy.
The debate could have charged onto higher ground that would have revealed the best candidate. Instead, they opted to recite tired sound bites and continue a lowbrow war of attrition.
Although statistics show most viewers calling the debate for Obama, it was a stalemate. Neither candidate took substantial risks, and neither decisively won or lost any significant issue. Politically, though, the distinction is unimportant — a tie translates to an Obama win.
McCain’s experience is a more compelling argument when it comes to foreign policy than with any other issue, and his ineffectiveness in hammering home this point will accelerate Obama’s rise in the polls.
In many ways, Obama’s tactical victory could have been predicted by examining a few numbers.
The first 40 minutes of the 90-minute debate focused on the economy, an area that gave Obama nine-point margin among voters prior to the debate. Furthermore, the debate was held two weeks after the beginning of Wall Street’s worst crisis in 80 years and two days before Congress voted against the $700 billion bailout McCain had been working on. All of these add up to a McCain loss.
But, even though the ostensibly foreign policy debate spent more time discussing Wall Street than every country outside of the Middle East, McCain could have won with the cards he was dealt. He can only blame himself for his overly subdued arguments.
The consummate maverick’s lackluster performance resulted because he learned the wrong lesson from his recent gambles.
His ill-advised decision to suspend his campaign and negotiate an economic package in Washington allowed Congressional leaders — who are, after all, Democrats — to draw attention to the Republican’s earlier economic missteps and accuse him of grandstanding and an inability to multitask. Meanwhile, his risky choice for running mate was losing her novelty as criticisms begin to stick with independents and even conservatives.
Accusations that McCain was fearfully dodging the showdown would only be exacerbated by the fact that a later debate, further removed from recent financial panic, would have focused more on international issues, allowing McCain’s experience to shine through.
In response, someone must have told McCain it was time to return to an orthodox campaign. Regaining his reason, he agreed to the debate. Abandoning his instincts, he showed America an overly orthodox and uninspiring version of himself.
Similarly, conservative advisers to Obama must have told the lofty public speaker and liberal thinker that he needed to emphasize competence and steadiness at the expense of the potential for greatness.
Strategists for both candidates likely let out a sigh of relief as the debate ended and viewers tried to stifle their yawns. McCain’s camp contained a potential crisis and left him within striking range for November, while Obama stopped his opponent from taking full advantage of a 26-year congressional career.
It’s disappointing that victory, for both groups, is defined by what didn’t happen. America should not be a society of negatives, led by the least error-prone defensive player.
The solution is not aggressive jabs (or misleading statements, which both candidates made their share of during the debate) or a war over who deserves to wear a bracelet in honor of a soldier. It is not for Obama and McCain to make eye contact as they speak — it’s understood, and proper, that their audience is the American people.
The solution is a radical bromide — truly debating the issues. Most viewers had heard every substantial line of Friday’s debate countless times before, but few understand the full rationale for the candidate’s positions and how it will help the voters.
A debate should outline those stances in detail. Then, the candidates should challenge in detail their opponent’s suggestions — not broadly disparage their experience or judgment. Ideally, we might gain something from the fact that they walked on stage together.