A fascinating night that gave us a peek at the fundamental contrast between these candidates. They both were very good, but in entirely different ways. Obama was relaxed, reflective, polished, and conversational–truer to the spirit of the event. McCain was energetic and forceful, but relied more on his favorite lines–treating it more like one of his townhall meetings (he had the advantage of an overwhelmingly friendly crowd). Obama was every bit the impressive, likable young man. McCain was the elder statesman telling his best stories. Obama was fluid and comfortable talking about his faith. McCain said the bare minimum about it.
But the starkest contrast came as soon as McCain started his half of the forum. Asked the three people he would listen to as president, McCain said right off the bat Gen. Petraeus (Obama had led with his wife and grandmother). It was an immediate signal that this is a man who is concerned first and foremost with matters of war and peace–just as you expect from someone who wants to be president of the United States. Asked when he had bucked his party at risk to his self-interest, McCain rolled off his greatest hits, and went all the back to differing with Reagan on Lebanon (a reminder of how long he has been immersed in national-security issues). It made Obama’s answer about promoting an ethics law with McCain seem incredibly weak in comparison. Then, McCain’s answer about the toughest decision he had ever made–refusing early release in Vietnam–was riveting and moving.
In the first fifteen minutes, McCain had established a moral seriousness stemming from his conduct in Vietnam as a POW and his long-time as a national leader that Obama can’t match. Throughout the rest of the night, he brought up Iraq, al Qaeda, and the Georgia crisis, when Obama was more inward-looking. McCain sounded like a potential commander-in-chief, Obama more like a potential friend. This is not to say, again, that Obama was not impressive. But the skills he showed tonight–the thoughtfulness and verbal dexterity–were those of a very talented memoirist, which, of course, he is.
As for the social issues, tonight should throw a damper on the notion that Obama is going to make major inroads among evangelicals voters. Why would they vote for his social liberalism couched in exquisite equivocations, when they can vote for someone who agrees with them on most everything like John McCain?