By Dana Milbank
Saturday, September 27, 2008
OXFORD, Miss., Sept. 26 It was supposed to have been a Goldilocks debate.
At one wooden lectern stood the Republican nominee, tempestuous and tightly wound. A few steps across the red carpet stood his Democratic opponent, cerebral and condescending. "Is John McCain too hot?" Chris Matthews of "Hardball" broadcast from the Ole Miss campus before Friday night's first general-election debate. "Is Barack Obama too cold?"
But when they opened their mouths, what came out was neither hot nor cold, but a tepid gruel.
McCain was controlled. Obama was succinct. And both were so mild that moderator Jim Lehrer didn't know what to do. "Talk to each other," he urged. "Say it directly to him," he pleaded. "Do you have something directly to say, Senator Obama, to Senator McCain about what he just said? . . . Respond directly to him about that, to Senator Obama about that. He's made it twice now."
No use. Lehrer asked about the financial-bailout plan gripping the nation. "Do you favor this plan?" the moderator pressed.
"We haven't seen the language yet," Obama demurred.
"Are you going to vote for the plan, Senator McCain?"
"I -- I hope so," McCain hedged.
It was 75 minutes into the 90-minute debate before any real blood was drawn, when Obama was defending his willingness to meet with foes. "So let me get this right," McCain snapped. "We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, 'We're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,' and we say, 'No, you're not'? Oh, please."
Laughter came from the audience. Obama struggled to respond but McCain kept cutting him off. "And Senator Obama is parsing words," he said.
"I am not parsing words," Obama insisted.
"He's parsing words, my friends."
But within moments, the spark was gone, the two men were back to room temperature, and McCain was going on about "the political process in Ukraine between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko."
"Senator McCain and I agree for the most part," was Obama's reply.
To the extent either man had the upper hand in the debate, it was Obama in the early parts while McCain looked uncomfortable, and McCain in the later parts as he kept Obama on the defensive. McCain twice called Obama's views "naive," called them "dangerous" four times, and seven times said Obama doesn't "understand." In reply, Obama said nine times that what his opponent claimed was "not true." Four more times he piped up to "correct" his opponent.
At one point, the men who would lead the nation engaged in a bit of jewelry one-upmanship. After McCain mentioned the bracelet he wears in honor of a fallen soldier, Obama broke in: "Jim, let me just make a point. I've got a bracelet, too, from Sergeant" -- here Obama paused awkwardly, looking at his wrist -- "from the mother of Sergeant Ryan David Jopek."
Throughout the campaign, the clash of personality has defined the race as much as ideology has. If one moment captured McCain's performance in the primary debates, it was his awkward grin as he promised to follow Osama bin Laden "to the gates of hell." If Obama had a corresponding moment, it was his cool putdown of Hillary Rodham Clinton: "You're likable enough."
There were flashes of those traits last night, too. McCain grinned while saying the words "wipe Israel off the map." He slipped into his "my friends" tic twice, and reminded the audience twice that "I did not win Miss Congeniality." He had a great deal of trouble pronouncing the name of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
McCain, who battles the accusation that he is erratic, ran into trouble at the outset, when, with red and moist eyes, he announced that "Senator Kennedy is in the hospital." (In fact, Kennedy had already been released.) "I've been not feeling too great about a lot of things lately," he added. It seemed as if he might cry.
True to form, McCain was sharper in his attacks on Obama. "Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate; it's hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left," he said. On Iraq, he charged: "Incredibly, incredibly Senator Obama didn't go to Iraq for 900 days, and never asked for a meeting with General Petraeus."
That was a bit too hot.
Obama, in turn, occasionally retreated to his professorial default. "It's hard to anticipate right now what the budget is going to look like next year," he advised the viewers. And, "There's some things that we've got to do structurally to make sure we can compete in this global economy."
While McCain seemed more agitated, stepping back and forth at the lectern, Obama gazed over at him with a look of mild disappointment. He allowed himself the occasional smirk, and true to his nature, he treated the audience to discussions of Franklin Roosevelt and the American share of oil supplies. "I reserve the right as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing," he announced. When McCain challenged his committee work in the Senate, Obama brushed it off with "That's inside baseball."
That was a bit too cool.
But Obama showed that he could take off his professor's cap, particularly when the topic turned to Iraq, and he repeatedly lectured McCain: "You were wrong." McCain, for his part, found a way to rib his opponent for once speaking behind a lectern with a faux presidential emblem. "I'm not going to set the White House visitors schedule before I'm president," he said. "I don't even have a seal yet."
But such moments of sharpness were rare. The job of being hot fell to, of all people, Jim Lehrer.
"Ten days ago, John said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound," Obama said into the camera.
"Say it directly to him," Lehrer instigated.
"Well," Obama obliged, "John, 10 days ago, you said the fundamentals of the economy are sound."
McCain was amused at this attempt to start a fight. He asked Lehrer: "Are you afraid I couldn't hear him?"