DEBATE I

The first presidential debate, held in Oxford, Mississippi, is history. Coupled with the current financial mess the country faces and with which Congress – the sometime workplace of the candidates – seems virtually unable to cope, it was anti-climactic and probably a wash, with enough hemming and hawing to make a barnyard full of mules feel superior to the human race. At 47, Obama had spent the entire day in Oxford polishing his shibboleths and practicing the appearance of feistiness, while McCain at age 72 had spent the day first in Washington as a silent part of the "bailout charade," then flying in (mostly on a wing and a prayer, as the old WWII song would have it) appearing tired and in need of a nap.

Even considering the main topic – BAILOUT – never mind the announced subject of foreign affairs, there was nothing either of substance or fantasy that was new. The usual past statements of the candidates were brought to the fore, no doubt reminding each man in the back-and-forth that hoof-in-mouth disease is deadly for a politician long-term as well as short-term. The notion that either of them would admit to a change of mind, at least vociferously, was shot out of the water from the get-go. Perhaps the most outrageous statement of the evening was that of Obama when he claimed his opposition to the Iraq War. Strangely, McCain (tired?) let that pass without mentioning that Obama was nowhere near the Senate in 2003, consequently participated in no briefings, and certainly had no vote in the matter. By contrast, his running mate, Senator Biden, voted for the war.

McCain homed-in relentlessly on the earmark question, mentioning the huge amount requested by Obama (with Biden also an earmark-freak), both of them willing to siphon money for any bridges to nowhere. Indeed, both democrats actually voted for the infamous Alaskan bridge-to-nowhere, but then, McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, while she didn’t have a vote, was for this monstrosity before she was against it…so what else is new?

Both debaters spoke in broken sentences and McCain had a problem pronouncing the name of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, ironically, was honored the evening before by the U.S. religious elite in New York in a Ramadan observance held in the hotel owned by an Obama financial operator. Obama tried to make the case for non-precondition face-to-face talks with this butcher, but McCain one-upped him by reminding him of the folly of a conversation with the man who has declared the total annihilation of Israel. Indeed, Ahmadinejad has claimed that the Holocaust never occurred…so how could anyone – with a straight face – counsel a conversation with a complete idiot?

Debate-moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS tried, mostly in vain, to get the candidates to argue with each other, but Obama was the only one to actually attempt this. To their credit, they were polite, though McCain did a lot of artificial smiling, while Obama did a good bit of head-shaking. The impression left was that each would love to call the other a liar but dare not. Obama exhibited his most recognizable interview-habit by stretching out the word "a-a-n-n-d-d-d" to the limit, obviously covering his thought-process at the moment, while McCain made the effort face-to-face to claim that Obama is naïve, such as when during the primary process he said publicly he would go after bin Laden whether or not the Pakistanis liked it. That amounts to invading a country without even a consultation with Congress.

Lehrer asked point-blank what each candidate would cut with respect to programs in light of the at least allegedly huge bailout cost of $700 billion. He received no clear-cut answers, though McCain said he would entertain a freeze on all government spending and mentioned that Obama's announced new programs would cost $800 billion. Lehrer asked each whether or not he approved of the bailout plan in the first place, and, of course, both did. The catch here was that there was no such thing as a bailout-plan at the time of the debate, but neither man made that point. Ambiguity, thy name is politician.

Obama hammered at the terrible tenure of George Bush and made it clear that McCain would merely continue his failed policies, noting that McCain voted 90% of the time for Bush's agenda. McCain countered that he had fought the administration consistently, pointing out particularly his demand for the "surge" when such a position was not popular in his own party, the clear implication being that his view had prevailed and eventuated in the amazing success of General Petraeus, who, when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee last fall was called a liar ("suspension of belief" in polite Congressional double-speak) by Senator Clinton.

Senator McCain got in a plug for his running mate, characterizing her as a "maverick," like himself. This is MSNBC of 09 September 2007: "President Bush's war strategy is failing and the top military commander in Iraq is 'dead flat wrong' for warning against major changes, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee [Biden] said Sunday." Palin was probably the wrong choice for McCain to make, but no worse than Biden, whose position has been that the U.S., as if it had the authority, should have divided Iraq into three separate entities…totally unrealistic.

The debate developed nothing new from either candidate, which means mostly that there's no point in watching any of the others. As a practical matter, the separate back-to-back interviews moderated by Pastor Rick Warren a few weeks ago in his Saddleback church provided a much better milieu, one in which the contestants could calmly state their positions un-argumentatively and just let the people decide.