McCain opens by saying that he wishes Ted Kennedy all the best, signaling that he believes Sarah Palin has brought the GOP base onboard for good. He then points to the bipartisan nature of the modified Paulson package. And says that this is only the end of the beginning of the financial crisis. Neither guy answered the question, prompting Lehrer to re-ask.
On redirect, Obama says he can't say whether he's for it or not because he hasn't seen the details. But that it's important to remember that he warned of the crisis two years ago. Which kind of leaves one wondering why, if he knew that the "worst economic crisis since the Great Depression" was coming down the pike, all he did was write a letter to Paulson instead of acting to head it off.
McCain says that he is going to vote for the bailout and then talks about how important it is to hold people accountable for their actions. This is a close one since neither guy conveys any deep understanding of the situation or insight into the solution.
Round to Obama
Round 2: Are there fundamental difference between your two approaches to the crisis?
McCain goes right after spending, hitting his reform theme and blaming Republicans for their earmarks, out of control spending, and scandals. It's like he's daring Obama to be harder on the GOP than he is.
Obama says that earmarks are bad--though not as bad as "the special interests"! But Obama maintains that McCain's tax cuts for
evil corporations and the rich are a worse source of waste than earmarks. Standing traditional supply-side economics on its head, Obama says he wants to grow the economy from the "bottom up."
The two then go back and forth on McCain's business tax cuts, culminating in McCain pointing that the U.S. business tax is 35 percent, Ireland's is 11 percent, and that lowering business taxes is one of the ways you keep businesses in America and create jobs. When Obama challenges this, he says that all of the "loopholes" actually make business taxes too low--suggesting that he'd like to make the U.S. less hospitable to businesses. Then McCain hits Obama for talking and not doing. Obama looks peevish.
Round to McCain
Round 3: As president, what will you give up to pay for the $700 billion bailout?
Obama says, quite nonsensically, that he's going to give up foreign oil by turning to wind, solar, and alternative fuels. He then goes on to talk about all the other things he is going to spend money on. If you were at all concerned that Obama's "no new taxes" pledge might not be written in stone, he isn't setting your mind at ease.
McCain says that we have to get spending under control and that he'd examine every agency of the government. Then, just throw an elbow at Iowa voters, he says that the first thing he'd do is cut the ethanol subsidy. Also, in an attempt to drive Michael Goldfarb from his staff, he singles out the DDX program in a long list of government waste that he'd go after.
When asked again what he would give up, Obama ducks the question, saying, again, that he will invest in ending our dependence on foreign oil. Not to pick nits but technically, that's new spending. Lehrer seems perturbed.
McCain then goes on the offensive saying we ought to consider a spending freeze (minus defense, entitlements, and veterans affairs). Thinking he has an opening, Obama pounces, saying that he wouldn't endorse a spending freeze because there are lots of under-funded programs that need more money from the federal government. It's not clear how this is helping reassure people that he won't raise their taxes.
Round to McCain
Round 4: What are the lessons of Iraq?
McCain says that you need to be mindful that strategies can fail and that flexibility is important. He says that we're winning in Iraq and that we will come home with victory and honor and a newly-minted ally in the region. He gives Gen. Petraeus and the troops all the credit.
Obama says that this is a fundamental difference between the two men because six years ago he stood up the salons of Hyde Park and bravely opposed the war. He then paints a picture of American defeat around the globe and claims that al Qaeda is stronger than it's been at any time since 2001. For whatever it's worth, this last assertion is counter to recent analysis of al Qaeda's strength. It betrays a staggering ignorance on Obama's part; his position deteriorates from there.
Round to McCain
Round 5: About that Afghanistan . . .
Obama says we need more troops in Afghanistan, which is why we need to pull out of Iraq and get tough with Pakistan.
McCain says that he regrets the mistake we made by neglecting the Afghanis after they drove the Soviets out, allowing the Taliban to take hold. He then paints Obama as reckless for wanting to cut off aid to a tottering nuclear power. The knowledge gap is beginning to show and it gets worse when Obama mangles pre-Musharraf Pakistani history.
As the exchange goes on it becomes clear that these guys like each other about as much as Ali and Foreman did.
Round to McCain
Round 6: How big a threat is Iran?
McCain says that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel and a strategic threat to the stability of the region. He notes that Russia is blocking action at the U.N. and touts a "League of Democracies" which could implement serious and tough sanctions on Iran. But "have no doubt," he's ready to throw down. He gallantly doesn't mention that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to prefer Obama.
Obama says that we need Russia and China to help with sanction. But the real thing we need with Iran is--hold on to your seats--tough, direct diplomacy!
McCain hits Obama for pledging to talk with Ahmadinejad without preconditions. Obama should just take his lumps here--this is the cost of winning the Democratic nomination. But instead he tries to weasel out of it, saying that he'll "sit down with anybody" but that there have to be "preparation." Then he tries to get cute by saying that Ahmadinejad may not be the most important person in Iran. It's a weird pride that keeps Obama committed to a losing position when he should just find different ground to fight on. You'll notice, by the way, that whenever he loses his way, he blurts out "President Bush."
McCain says that his opponent's views aren't "just naive, but dangerous." Obama isn't doing anything to dispel this notion.
Round to McCain
Round 7: Russia. Competitor? Enemy? Partner? Discuss.
Obama says that the evidence of recent weeks says we need to reevaluate our relationship with Russia and that we should start expanding NATO immediately. But that we can't return to a Cold War posture.
McCain says that Obama's first reaction to the Russia-Georgia conflict was to urge both sides to show restraint, evincing further "naiveté." It's pretty rough, particularly when he starts talking about the specifics of South Ossetia.
Round to McCain
Round 8: What is the likelihood of another 9/11?
McCain says it's "much less than it was the day after 9/11" and that we are a safer nation, even though we are not safe. He talks about how he pushed for the creation of the 9/11 Commission against the wishes of President Bush and how he worked with Democrats to pass most of the Commission's recommendations. Most gratifyingly, he talks about how important it is to bolster American intelligence capabilities, particularly in the area of HUMINT.
Obama says that we are safer in some ways, but still have a long way to go. He smartly points out that we have yet to harden transportation points (excluding airports), chemical facilities, and other attractive targets. He also talks about the need to focus on nuclear proliferation, in order to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. This is the most comfortable and commanding he's been all night.
McCain goes back to Obama's desire to withdrawal from Iraq, saying that Obama doesn't realize how interconnected Iraq is to the wider terrorist threat. Obama responds that Iraq is a huge disaster and hindrance to everything America needs to do in the world.
Then McCain throws down the gauntlet with what I suspect will be the only line people take away from the night: "There are some advantages to experience and knowledge and judgment. And I honestly don't believe that Sen. Obama has the knowledge or experience and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas."
Then he takes another big swing: "You know we've seen this stubbornness before in this administration, to cling to a belief that somehow the surge has not succeeded and failing to acknowledge that he was wrong about the surge shows to me that we need more flexibility in a president of the United States than that. . . . I don't think I need any on-the-job training."
This round is a Rorschach. If you love Obama, he acquitted himself well. If you have questions about Obama, you found McCain's assault devastating. The big question is how undecideds will see this last exchange.
Round to McCain
My scorecard says that McCain won the night 7-1, which frankly surprises me. On paper that looks like a rout, but McCain didn't seem that dominant as it was happening. Certainly there was nothing in the debate that Obama will worry about as having been a big blow. I saw McCain winning the debate pretty handily, but I doubt he scored any larger strategic victory.
Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.