"SINCE YOU last met at Ole Miss 12 days ago," Tom Brokaw told the two presidential candidates as they began their second debate last night, "the world has changed a great deal, and not for the better." In grappling with that grim reality, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain proved more adept at casting blame for the current travails than they were at outlining the best way forward.
Mr. McCain pointed a finger at Mr. Obama for failing to stand up to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, while Mr. Obama called the meltdown "a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years" and cited Mr. McCain's deregulatory bent. Both for the most part reiterated economic policies formed months ago rather than platforms suited to the new reality, though Mr. McCain called for the government to "immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America" -- a rather unexpected and mostly unexplained stance from a supposed avatar of small-government conservatism, but nonetheless worth discussing. Neither candidate came to grips with the constrained new reality that the next president will inherit; all campaign proposals are to some extent pipe dreams, but the financial crisis puts real limits on what either candidate would be able to achieve as president.
On the second most challenging fiscal issue -- the exploding cost of health care and other entitlement spending -- Mr. McCain was more realistic, though neither candidate got specific about painful details, not surprisingly in the closing weeks of a hard-fought campaign. Asked how he would prioritize among promoting alternative sources of energy, improving health-care coverage and dealing with entitlement spending, Mr. Obama left entitlements off his list altogether. When asked specifically about Social Security, he reverted to a discussion of his general tax policy and neglected to mention his proposal to increase Social Security payroll taxes for those earning more than $250,000. Mr. McCain's proposals were limited to convening a commission to tackle Medicare, but he was honest enough to say, "We are not going to be able to provide the same benefit for present-day workers that . . . retirees have today."
The candidates engaged on tax policy, eschewing some of the usual distortions to present their two fundamentally different approaches: Mr. Obama emphasized the need to share burdens fairly, while Mr. McCain stressed the economic drag created by higher taxes. The candidates also had an important opportunity to broaden the discussion from the economy and Iraq to deal at some length with issues such as health care. Mr. Obama criticized the McCain approach for undermining the existing system of employer-sponsored health care, while Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama's plan would rely too much on government mandates, although he incorrectly asserted that Mr. Obama would require small employers to provide insurance.
Like the economy, the tone of the campaign had deteriorated sharply before the second debate. Last night brought a welcome return to civility. Some elbows were thrown, but they were relevant elbows on serious topics, not inflammatory diversions about Mr. Obama's alleged "palling around with terrorists" or Mr. McCain's rather peripheral involvement in a savings-and-loan scandal two decades ago. It was a relief that the candidates, after a lot of loose talk about gloves being removed, chose instead to turn away from the nastiness and remind the country of something it has been easy, in recent days, to forget: These are two serious, thoughtful nominees who embody differing ideologies but who are -- or could be -- a tribute to their parties and their country.