Anticipation was high for the second Presidential debate hosted by Belmont University in Nashville, TN. It was a night billed as a townhall meeting where Joe and Jane Voter would have the opportunity to ask the candidates gritty, fresh questions. In the end, it was a snoozefest filled with worn out rhetoric from both candidates.
Obama centered in on McCain’s support of the Bush administration’s policies. “…this is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain,” Obama said of the economic crisis. McCain countered by repeating attacks that Obama is a tax-and-spend liberal who is unqualified and unready to lead the free world. “We don’t have time for on the job training” he quipped.
In addition to tired talking points, blame for the uneventful debate seems to be go directly back to the moderator, an always sober Tom Brokaw. The audience’s questions, which were selected by the moderator, were restrictive and unrevealing. It certainly didn’t feel like a truly spontaneous townhall meeting. And when it came to the pacing of the event, Brokaw seemed more concerned with regulating the time clock than fielding a memorable debate.
One thing that everyone is worried about is the economy. One man named Oliver asked how the bailout is actually going to help people. “This rescue package means that we will stabilize markets, we will shore up these institutions,” McCain responded. “But it’s not enough. That’s why we’re going to have to go out into the housing market and we’re going to have to buy up these bad loans and we’re going to have to stabilize home values, and that way, Americans, like Alan, can realize the American dream and stay in their home.” How much would that cost and what would that look like? We don’t know because McCain never explained it.
Obama, on the other hand, seemed to believe that things would get worse before they get better, however, when Brokaw pressed him on it he said, “No. I am confident in the American economy.”
In an attempt to dig deeper, Brokaw asked for a response from both candidates to President Bush’s statement that “Wall Street got drunk.” Obama responded by attacking McCain’s tax plan. McCain countered with one of his more memorable lines: “Nailing down Senator Obama’s various tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. There has been five or six of them and if you wait long enough, there will probably be?another one.” Neither candidate directly answered the question, and viewers got no real assurance from either on their economic plans.
Although most of the questions were softball pitches and the answers were the equivalent of bunts, there were some glimmers of thoughtfulness throughout the night. One Navy Chief named Terry asked: if Iran attacked Israel, would we defend Israel or wait for UN approval? McCain said we wouldn’t wait for approval and Obama said we should never take military options off the table.
Entering the second Presidential debate, the big question for John McCain, who is steadily slipping in the polls and has already pulled his campaign out of the battleground state of Michigan, was “Can he change things up?” If Tuesday’s performance was any indicator, the answer to that question is “no.” The Arizona Senator needed a big win. He needed people talking about his performance like they were after Palin’s speech at the RNC. Unfortunately, they aren’t.
Obama needed to do nothing more than what he has done over the last few weeks to maintain his lead in the polls. He did no more and no less, which amounts to a checkmark in the “W” category for his campaign.
As Politico’s Alexander Burns put it, “Obama didn’t deliver a knockout punch tonight. But he denied his opponent a chance to rescramble the campaign, and that was enough. The day goes to him.” Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press said, “John McCain, despite raiding pointed questions about his rival’s readiness, didn’t create the game-changing moment he’ll need between now and election day.” Columns in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times echo similar sentiments. TIME Magazine gave McCain’s performance a B, while giving Obama a B+.
And what about viewers? According to a CBS poll, 40% of uncommitted voters said Obama won, 26% said McCain came out on top, and 34% felt they tied.
A debate win for Obama at this stage of the game is devastating for McCain, and a tie isn’t much better. There may be in 27 days to go, but time is running out for John McCain. The next debate is in eight days, and there is little doubt that the self-proclaimed maverick needs to do considerably better next time around to have a real shot at victory come November.