Cranky vs. cool

McCain sneers and sighs while a calm, presidential Obama holds his own.

Published September 28, 2008 3:21AM (EDT)

I wish I'd organized a drinking game around the number of times John McCain said, "Sen. Obama doesn't understand," or found some other way to sneer at Obama as naive and inexperienced. For the most part he refused to even look at Barack Obama over 90 minutes. What an ass. It was hackneyed and condescending and, to me, repellent. But did it work?

Unexpectedly, I think Obama did better in the foreign policy section of the debate than in the early economic section, where he should have scored a knockout. Obama did a good job questioning McCain's judgment on Iraq, and generally (I liked the line deriding McCain singing about bombing Iran and joking about North Korea's extinction). Likewise, Obama defended his positions on striking al-Qaida inside Pakistan and sitting down with unpopular world leaders better than he ever has, even as McCain proclaimed such positions "dangerous." By insisting that meeting Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad legitimizes his hateful views of Israel, McCain essentially declared that sitting down with a foreign leader "legitimizes" any crazy thing they've ever said, which of course nobody believes. (It also wasn't impressive that it took him three tries to pronounce "Ahmadinejad.")

But I think during the early economic questions, Obama made a mistake letting McCain talk endlessly about taxes and earmarks, and squirm away from the current crisis. I expected Obama to tie McCain to the House Republicans who have tried to block the needed bailout bill; Obama gave him way too much rope to falsely depict himself as a colleague in wanting reform. After McCain's despicable antics this week, Obama should have been much more withering in tying McCain not only to the failed deregulation policies of the past, but the dead-end ultraconservative programs of this week.

Some of the lasting questions may come down to debate style: Will McCain's sighs and sneers in the side-by-side TV shots hurt him the way Al Gore's media-exaggerated looks of exasperation hurt him in 2000? Did Obama do the right thing by letting McCain talk over him, several times graciously giving the floor back to Jim Lehrer to ask another question, giving up on getting the last word? I thought he looked gracious and presidential; others may think he looked insufficiently tough. I think Obama more than held his own in this first debate, but if you're looking for a grumpy, sarcastic put-down artist as president, your choice is quite clear.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections