Aground at Ole Miss
Michael Ubaldi, September 27, 2008.
The first presidential debate between senators since 1964 (if we subordinate Lyndon Johnson's three years as vice president and pretend he debated Barry Goldwater), last night saw each man preferring to address the chamber to his opponent. Even after moderator Jim Lehrer chided both, neither managed eye contact for long. And neither answered the first question directly — are governors, as de facto executives, really better suited for the job?
John McCain trailed in the first half-hour, appearing diminutive and derivative by echoing Barack Obama's responses on short-term economic plans. The candidates diverged on spending priorities, and McCain's one-note sounded more authoritative than Obama's willingness to freeze all spending except any one of the dozens of major entitlement programs the Democrat recited in litany.
Thirty more minutes, and the Republican spent as much allotted time demonstrating and criticizing as his opponent did adumbrating and protesting. The appeal the Illinois senator made to a left-leaning audience in July is indelible on record — said Obama, "I would," in the words of Anderson Cooper, "meet separately, without precondition" with the serial liars of "Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea." No, no, not actually, said Obama. Hereon Obama can only show the electorate a palimpsest. Oh, there are other officials in Tehran that the Illinois senator would face from across a table.
John F. Kennedy said, before he became president, "I would not meet with Mr. Khrushchev unless there were some agreement at the secondary level which would indicate that the meeting had some hope of success, or useful exchange of ideas." The month after Kennedy became president, Moscow ogled. Kennedy had a meeting arranged. And in Vienna, in June, Nikita Khrushchev dialectically scalped him.
Yes, fine, Barack Obama is an abstract thinker; I am, and many other intelligent and capable people are, too. It's our nature to generalize. But does he comprehend world affairs, understand the brute endurance of men who sleep restfully after a day as principal of a violent, repressive state? Does Obama even know where a lot of these locations are and what is in them? When John McCain spoke of each issue, he identified people and places, fitting them in context — which one cannot do when simply rattling off. Those are, for world leadership, not minutiae.
The last half-hour yielded John McCain extra points. Barack Obama looks to his left and puffs his cheeks when vexed, and in those thirty minutes a lot of cheek-puffing was directed leftwards. Not so discriminating about democracies, totalitarians, whatever, Obama turned subjunctively to China and Russia. They "have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon." Mr. Obama, that pair's trade is the Iranian nuclear warranty.
We hear that Obama, statistically regnant, need only adequate performances. Last night's exchange dishevels this thinking. The Democrat left Ole Miss in mere adequacy. Not once did he penetrate his opponent's philosophy or platform, while he now must memorize prevarications for each position that won't sound right to the average voter. Last night, John McCain could have tied the deposition of Saddam Hussein to Muammar Gaddafi's capitulation, which exposed AQ Khan and a transnational network of weapons of mass destruction — antidote to the word "Iraq," still a Democrat's potent venom. McCain didn't. But he can next time, and again, and again. Barack Obama will advance to the forthcoming debates, possibly to win, but first to simply survive.
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