A few thoughts on the debate:
1. My guess is “that one” will be the moment remembered from this one. Why? Because it can be used as shorthand for the overwhelming mood of the evening. There was deep tension between the two men. McCain appeared to hold Obama in low regard. Obama appeared to treat McCain like a disruptive student in his law school class. The teacher acknowledged the dissenter, explained why he was wrong, and moved on.
2. McCain is famous for his performance in town halls, but this was not a town hall, at least not one in the way that McCain likes. For one thing, no one laughed at McCain’s bad jokes. And there was no give-and-take with the audience or the moderator. Furthermore, McCain’s intent in this debate was the opposite of his intent in a New Hampshire church basement. In the classic McCain town hall, differences of opinion are expressed, and McCain works to build a conversation, so that everyone develops respect for him and each other, even if there is disagreement. In this debate, McCain was trying to convince voters and the audience that Obama was not worthy. So there was a stilted element to the affair. Finally, the key to the classic McCain town hall is that McCain is having fun. He did not appear to be having fun tonight. Obama, meanwhile, did not seem interested in having fun. He was there to make his case, and he did it clearly.
3. McCain was most effective when explaining his foreign policies, at the end of the debate. Obama was most effective at describing his domestic policies, at the beginning of the debate. In the same way that McCain sounds authentic when talking about his vote on Lebanon, Obama is in his comfort zone when describing how insurance companies will game state regulatory regimes.
4. Neither candidate has the courage to speak straight with the American people about our nation’s fiscal problems. Asked about the financial crisis, McCain talked about energy independence, hitting the same talking points he used in July. Obama talked about the need to give tax cuts to the middle class, and expand spending programs, a proposal he put forward last year. Both men have proposed policies that will lead to an increase in the deficit, according to independent analysts, even without a dramatic economic downturn, which looks increasingly inevitable. Neither man has shown any clear intention to tell Americans to face head on the hard economic times that await us. This is politics. The candidates are playing it safe, not telling voters anything they don’t want to hear. They choose to demagogue Wall Street instead. Let’s just pray that after the election, the winner drops this politicking and becomes the bold, honest leader both men claim to be. The nation will need it.
5. Like the last meeting of these two men, this debate will be graded on a scale. As McCain likes to say, Life’s not fair. The state of the race is such that this debate–like the campaign itself–has become a referendum on Obama. It’s not clear how McCain can “win” without Obama making a mistake. A tie goes to the new guy.
6. Did you see that moment at the end, when Obama and McCain were working the room with their wives? Obama seemed to move towards McCain, as if he wanted to exchange a few words. McCain pointed to his wife, telling Obama to shake Cindy’s hand. McCain then turned away. (UPDATE: Thanks to TPM, here is that moment on YouTube; Wolf Blitzer miss calls the tape. Though it was awkward on the second pass, they did shake hands earlier.)