[Opinion] – Debatable

It was nice of John McCain to drop by the oleâÄô Mississippi campus on Friday; I was getting a bit worried that he was going to stay in Washington to single-handedly save the global economy. But, of course, even though Congress hadnâÄôt finished a financial bailout bill, the good senator cleared to some to have a conversation about the future of the country. And it proved to be a useful debate, too: both candidates laid out their stances relatively clearly, which is supposed to be the whole point of these things. But it does seem like McCain needed something transformative to happen during the debate âÄî heâÄôs slipping in the polls, his running mate looks more incompetent by the minute, his beloved deregulatory policies are crumbling. But nothing drastic happened on Friday night, during a debate about a topic (foreign policy) that is supposed to be McCainâÄôs strong suit. I should mention that moderator Jim Lehrer did a fine job moderating: after some shameful debates during the primaries (IâÄôm looking at you, ABC and NBC), Lehrer managed to stay out of the way and let the candidates speak. So, good for him. ItâÄôs also worth mentioning that neither candidate is exactly a great debater. McCain clearly prefers his town-hall meetings, and Barack Obama seems more comfortable giving set-piece speeches. But theyâÄôve both improved since the primaries, so at this point theyâÄôre at least adequate. Someone, though, should tell McCain that itâÄôs all right to actually look Obama in the eye. That was easily the strangest subplot of the evening: the Arizona senator always seemed slightly offended that he actually had to participate in the debate at all. He almost never looked at Obama, and his catch phrase for the evening was some variation of âÄúObama doesnâÄôt seem to understand (concept).âÄù ThatâÄôs an odd line of attack; one that would work if the other person were clearly over-matched. But Obama, whatever you think about his positions, never gave the impression of being out of his league. Instead, he spent the debate projecting a general sense of calm and comfort. McCainâÄôs seeming contempt for the guy behind the other podium didnâÄôt shrink ObamaâÄôs stature âÄî instead, it just produced an odd disconnect. McCain improved as the debate went on. At one point, while discussing diplomatic ties with Iran, McCain got Obama bogged down in the difference between âÄúpreconditionsâÄù and âÄúpreparationâÄù; that took some attention away from what could have been an effective line from Obama. The Democratic nominee mentioned that âÄúwe do not expect to solve every problem before we initiate talks.âÄù ThatâÄôs a reasonable response to McCainâÄôs position of only meeting with countries once they do exactly what we say, but it ended up buried in a semantic argument. On most of the other foreign policy questions, McCain failed to back Obama into any corners. The two basically agreed on the question of Russia, with Obama taking a harder line than he ever has before. And when it came to Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain actually did rather poorly. The core of McCainâÄôs Iraq position has one major flaw: he tries to pretend the war started 18 months ago. He loves to talk about âÄúthe surgeâÄù and how successful it was âÄî itself a dubious assertion, and one that ignores everything that happened in the four years prior. Obama managed to point that out, focusing not on the narrow tactics of the surge but instead on the broader strategic picture: that he opposed the war in Iraq because it would weaken our efforts in Afghanistan. Obama made that section of the debate into a discussion on presidential decision-making âÄî always rough territory for McCain, considering his support for our greatest strategic mistake since Vietnam. McCain seemed content to do nothing but mention Gen. David PetraeusâÄôs name over and over again, like it was some kind of magic word. But the roughest part of the debate for McCain came at the very beginning, when the questions focused on the prospective financial bailout and the general state of the U.S. economy. McCain was clearly out of his element, and Obama hammered away at McCainâÄôs tax cuts for the super-wealthy and the hole McCainâÄôs plans would blow in the national deficit. These questions only lasted for a little while, but the entirety of the final debate a few weeks from now will focus on exactly these kinds of domestic concerns. McCain, as he always does, attempted to trumpet his opposition to wasteful earmark spending. When Obama pointed out that those earmarks only cost $18 billion annually, and that McCainâÄôs tax plan would cost an extra $300 billion, the Republican had no response. He tried to talk about ObamaâÄôs earmark requests, but didnâÄôt succeed in taking the focus off of his own budgetary quandary. Obama showed an ability to talk comfortably about the status of the middle class, reminding the audience that he would cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. McCain never uttered the words âÄúmiddle classâÄù once and showed no interest in discussing the subject. Instead, he tried to compare the U.S. corporate tax rates to those in âĦ Ireland. And Obama even had a response to that, pointing out how many loopholes we have in our corporate tax code. This debate was McCainâÄôs chance to highlight his biggest selling point: his supposed foreign-policy credentials. He failed to do so, and looked completely out of touch when forced to talk about domestic issues. If he canâÄôt figure out how to talk to regular Americans about the economy, the next few debates wonâÄôt be disappointing for McCain. TheyâÄôll be disastrous. John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected].