John McCain delivered a solid performance in the first presidential debate of the general election Friday night, one more impressive than that of Barack Obama. Obama’s surrogates are complaining in every available venue that McCain was “condescending” and “mean,” a sure sign their man lost. For our money, McCain wasn’t tough enough on Obama.
On issue after issue, he let Obama get away with murder: Corporate tax cuts are a gift to big oil, the financial crisis is the exclusive responsibility of Republicans, Obama’s apparent leftism really just shows how much he opposed Bush. McCain passed up obvious shots: When Obama defended his vote against troop funding, he should have quoted Sen. Biden: “My colleagues voted against the funding to make a political point. . . . There’s no political point worth my son’s life.”
McCain won anyway, because Obama was so defensive when talking about foreign policy — and has so much to explain away, such as his rash promise to sit down with dictators without preconditions. McCain did an effective job of hitting Obama’s refusal to admit that he erred on the surge.
We concentrate here on the weaknesses of McCain’s debating style because they are likely to loom larger in the domestic-policy debate. When McCain was asked about his “fundamental differences” with Obama on the economy, he replied with a lengthy discussion of earmarks as a “gateway drug” to higher spending. The Bush administration’s request for $700 billion to purchase distressed securities has doubtless made Americans more concerned about overspending. But they are more concerned about their own budgets than the federal budget, and McCain did not connect the two.
McCain won, but next time he will have to do better.