Obama’s opening statement was his standard theme, complete with a reference to a “defining moment,” and McCain’s was an appropriately meandering answer that somehow ended up talking about job creation and foreign oil.  He seems to have been taking lessons on how to give answers from his running mate.  Now he’s bragging about his call for Cox’s resignation, and returning to his old song about the evils of greed and corruption.  Convergence continues–both will vote for the bailout. 

McCain naturally follows up by saying that we should control spending.  He’s back on his hobbyhorse: earmarks are a gateway drug!  Pork and earmarks are evil!  Studying the DNA of bears is bad; Alaskan studies of seal DNA is presumably desirable.  Oh, no, Obama supported earmarks!  McCain is actually going to make the argument tonight all about earmarks.  He’s already losing and we’re not even through the first half hour. 

Is it just me, or do their fiscal disputes seem absurd in light of their agreement on the bailout?

“Two thousand!  Two thousand” McCain says, talking endlessly about earmarks.  Obama is doing quite well, especially as compared to some of his clumsy primary performances.  McCain is starting to let his contempt for Obama show.  He keeps laughing like some sort of disturbed gremlin.  Obama has avoided his old habit of disjointed, professorial answers.  McCain is back on his anti-spending kick.  Ethanol subsidies and earmarks are in his sights!  He is making a solid effort at avoiding the questions about priorities, unless he thinks ethanol and unnecessary defense contracts are the burning issues of the day.  His answer is a more elaborate “finding efficiencies” response.  Lehrer notices that neither of them answered the question.  Now Obama is fumbling as he tries to avoid committing to anything.  Google-for-government has made a return appearance.  Lehrer is getting annoyed.  McCain: let’s have a spending freeze on everything except defense, veterans’ benefits and entitlements, which is to say the vast majority of the budget.

This debate seems strangely disorganized. 

It took 40 minutes for McCain to mention the “surge.”  It seems that the debate over the war tonight is going to be another exercise in talking past one another: the “surge” worked, the war was wrong, we’re winning, took our eye off the ball, and repeat.  McCain: stop talking about the past!  Let me now rehash Obama’s record on the “surge.”  Obama: you want to talk about the past?  I’ll tell you about your views on Iraq!  McCain: Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy (of course, McCain thereby shows that he doesn’t understand the difference, since he has called the “surge” a new strategy countless times).  “Let us win!” McCain says in his best Rambo impersonation.  McCain is in his full-blown self-righteous mode.  I can’t imagine that undecided voters are responding well to his tone, but then I don’t really understand undecided voters.  McCain stupidly reminds people that Obama wanted soliders out of Iraq last March, which is what people want

Obama makes his points about Afghanistan, showing that he does actually know what strategy means and McCain does not.  Now he’s on to Pakistan–look out!  Wait for the McCain “he wanted to bomb Pakistan” rebuttal.  And…there it is!  He’s actually right that there needs to be Pakistani cooperation, but he doesn’t seem to understand that the problem with launching strikes without their permission is not just something you shouldn’t talk about but also something you shouldn’t do.  He also doesn’t seem to know Zardari’s name.  Obama reiterates his bad idea about launching strikes into Pakistan without their permission, but gets a good dig against McCain’s belligerency.    McCain: it’s okay if I want to start a war with Iran, because I once opposed sending soldiers to Lebanon.  McCain goes down his roll call of different interventions, inexplicably reminding people that he supported interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Obama: “You don’t muddle through.”  McCain: Obama didn’t go to Afghanistan earlier! 

On Iran, McCain recites the usual litany: no second Holocaust (there isn’t going to be one), no arms race (there might be one, which would make the Iranian threat much less dangerous), we need a League of Democracies (stupid!).  He has pretty effectively avoided answering how any of this relates to U.S. national security.  Obama works on his anti-Iranian hawkish pander, claiming (falsely) that he has always supported labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.  Obama scores the easy point that the League of Democracies is useless in handling Iran.  McCain bungles Ahmadinejad’s name.  Now it’s time to talk about talks “without preconditions”!  Obama scores another easy point by citing Kissinger’s endorsement of talking to Iran.  Obama makes his preparation vs. precondition distinction, which he uses to obscure what his original answer on this last year really was.  Obama hits him on the Zapatero gaffe.  McCain keeps repeating his claim that he would be “legitimizing” other regimes, which is the basic error of his view.  McCain is getting petulant.  How in the world has Henry Kissinger become the center of this debate? 

Obama: Russia is very aggressive and a threat to the region; Russian actions were unwarranted.  Russia has to leave South Ossetia and Abkhazia (good luck with that one!).  Affirm fledgling democracies!  He rattles off names of small countries.  MAPs for Georgia and anybody else that wants one!  But no Cold War–this sounds just as ridiculous as when Palin says it.  Oh, and nonproliferation.  Despite having sold out completely on this issue, Obama is still getting hit for “not understanding” so-called Russian aggression.  McCain: There’s a pipeline!  (It’s a pipeline that had nothing to do with the war, but there is a pipeline.)  McCain waxes poetic about Saakashvili as usual.  The two of them are indistinguishable.  It’s very depressing.

Best other liveblogging line of the night comes from Alex Massie:

McCain says “off-shore drilling is a bridge.”  To Nowhere, obviously.

McCain lies about Obama’s position on withdrawal.  All the things that annoy me about Obama’s position (premising withdrawal on conditions on the ground, consulting with commanders “on the ground,” etc.) McCain pretends don’t exist.  McCain is a flat-out liar.  Weirdly, after pushing back against McCain all night, Obama lets McCain get away with it.

McCain: “There are some advantages to experience, knowledge and judgement.”  If only he had the knowledge and judgement.  Did McCain just claim that he is the more flexible candidate when it comes to foreign policy?  This is crazy stuff. 

Happily, it is now finished.


A poll of undecided voters rated Obama the winner 40-22% with 38% saying it was a draw.  That is more in line with my impression of how the debate went.  Maybe I can understand something about the mind of undecided voters after all.

Also, the theme song of the week, since Kissinger has been in the news a lot lately: an old classic.

Second Update: Quin Hillyer and the CNN viewer panel rate Obama the winner.

Third Update: Halperin grades Obama as having done better than McCain.  The CW has now been firmly entrenched.  The telling thing is that this has happened in a debate for which a lot of us assumed McCain wasn’t very well-prepared (he was busily grandstanding in D.C. saving the world, after all) and focused on a subject where McCain is supposedly some grand master and Obama is allegedly a novice.  Obama proved that the idea that he is somehow not well-versed on foreign policy is nonsense.  From here on out, McCain is in a lot of trouble.  In future debates he can’t just keep saying, “Earmark reform, drill, baby, drill, maverick” and expect people to pay attention to what he says. 

Steve Benen grades the performances with almost the same marks that Halperin and Andrew give.  Especially after the last two weeks that the McCain campaign has had, McCain really needed a decisive win to give him a much-needed boost.  His bailout-related stunt, at best, neither won nor lost him anything, and at worst it will saddle him with the bulk of responsibility for whatever Congress produces or fails to produce.  If a deal is reached, and most Americans hate the bailout idea, McCain will suffer the backlash; if the deal fails, he is excoriated by pundits and journalists until Election Day.  Considering all of that, McCain’s possibly eking out a tie with someone whom he regards as a naive fool is actually a serious defeat.

Fourth Update: Frank Luntz’s focus group responded more favorably to Obama.  Curiously, that focus group wanted more emotion from McCain and not from Obama, whom a lot of bloggers seem to have regarded as too detached.

Fifth Update: Are there any Republicans who still wish Palin could have filled in for McCain?  I didn’t think so.