McCain Debates to a Close Victory

The first presidential debate was tepid, which is worse for John McCain than Barack Obama. Compared to the fascinating forum at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, this opening official battle was child’s play.
McCain’s failed gambit to be Mr. Hero, or “The Maverick,” proved to be a detriment to his performance. The Democrats saw the play coming. Instead of McCain emerging from the financial deal talks looking like a leader, Harry Reid and friends, in a concerted counterattack, claimed he caused it to fall apart. Since nothing came of the meetings, McCain wound up sounding like a child. “I’m the real Maverick, Barry, and I won’t play with you anymore.”
When McCain showed up to Friday’s debate with his tail between his legs, Obama came out looking like the good sport. While it was all about appearance, due to the fact that Senate leaders actually called McCain to Washington because they claimed he was the only person capable of pushing the deal to completion, it nevertheless threw McCain off his footing and allowed Obama to pivot into place.
The result was a wash. McCain’s lively, succinct performance at the Saddleback Forum paled in comparison to his sometimes awkward, repetitive slashes in the first debate. While Obama didn’t do anything special, he still didn’t come off as a bumbling, stuttering pseud like last time.
On the subject of the economy, McCain resonated. Frank Luntz, a professional pollster, determined via a panel of independent viewers that Obama was effective at conveying empathy. McCain didn’t do poorly either—he hit several good notes on spending, but Obama seized on the all-important sympathy play, possibly grabbing some of those left-leaning moderates.
However, that is not to say that McCain did badly. He certainly won the debate as a whole, but only by a hair, which in the greater scheme of this election, a referendum on Obama, is not necessarily a victory and, at worst, is a loss.
McCain’s wealth of experience was immediately apparent. He was able to cite specific examples of leadership on virtually every issue, from the economy to foreign policy, while pointing out Obama’s weaknesses. In every instance, Obama responded with platitudes; his best moments came when he agreed with McCain, backtracking on drilling and taxation. If McCain had entered the debate with solid footing, without the perception that his party tanked the economy, this might have been a different picture.
McCain was most successful at nettling Obama, which seems to be as easy as dating Bill Clinton. He hammered him with sarcasm and jabs about his incompetence. McCain wasn’t as witty as Reagan with his memorable “There you go again” or “My opponent’s youth and inexperience,” but Obama wasn’t as slick as Willy’s “No attack ever fed a hungry child.” Obama couldn’t hide his annoyance when he grimaced, whined and interrupted McCain.
At his worst moments, Obama seemed arrogant, condescending and elitist, while in the first quarter or so, McCain came off as lethargic, slowly easing into his groove. McCain finally reached a moderate stride when he hit Obama for being naïve on diplomacy, for his willingness to sit down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro without preconditions.
Any mistakes were minor. McCain didn’t defend himself as hard as he should have on the economy. Obama was easily baited and as usual his responses lacked detail.
All Obama had to do, given the last disastrous weak of economic implosions, was stay afloat, and he did. He didn’t blow it and didn’t say anything was “above his pay grade.” McCain did well, but not his best.
Obama’s mediocre performance coupled with McCain’s economic handicap bred an even fight, with McCain barely edging him out. Obama is already spiking in the polls so it will most likely fall on Sarah Palin’s shoulders to bail McCain out again at next week’s vice presidential debate.

Patrick Ross is a fifth-year English and history double-major. He can be reached at pross@uci.edu.