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McCain, Obama Clash on Foreign Policy, Economic Future in Tense First Debate

September 26, 2008 at 11:30 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: I’m here in Washington with syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, your overall impressions?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I miss Ronald Reagan. He didn’t know as much about the issues as these gentlemen just demonstrated they did, but he could make a values connection that people will remember weeks later, which I don’t think either of them did.

Believe me, I think each of them did fine. I think it was much the better debate than we’ve seen in four or eight years. I think McCain was sharp and experienced, which he hasn’t always been. I thought Obama was knowledgeable and forceful.

But there was a blizzard of policies that I don’t think either of them made a values connection with people who don’t already agree with them. So my bottom line is I think they both did well, but I don’t think this changed the campaign in any fundamental way.

RAY SUAREZ: And Mark Shields?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Ray, I think national security is John McCain’s wheelhouse. And I think Obama more than held his own factually and empirically tonight. I don’t think there was certainly a substantive advantage.

On these, oftentimes it’s how people react to them. I thought Obama’s manner, the concern that Democrats had going in, would he be Bambi? He wasn’t Bambi. He wasn’t belligerent or bellicose, but he certainly showed a certain mettle.

And the question with McCain would be, any senior moments? There weren’t any senior moments.

But I thought that John McCain’s manner — he never looked at Obama. He just insisted on calling him Senator Obama all the way through. There was almost a frostiness and he punctuated, instead of the “my friends,” it became “Senator Obama doesn’t understand. Senator Obama doesn’t understand.” And I just think stylistically that didn’t work for John McCain.

McCain strikes aggressive tone

RAY SUAREZ: What do you think, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that to a large extent, though I've sat through many McCain debates where I've cringed because I thought he was getting overly aggressive. And in the polls, it hasn't actually turned out the way. People do like a tough president.

But I basically agree. I thought he should have looked at him, should have showed a little humor, a little softening of the tone.

But I thought where Obama was best was in those interpersonal exchanges. Where McCain was best in the experience and the specific anecdotes, he told about his experience in leadership. And that's the stuff that Obama can't match.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing, Ray, and that is, the question was not about whether Barack Obama could move a crowd. He's demonstrated that. The question was whether he could be moved himself.

And I agree that he doesn't reveal anything about himself. There's never a moistening of the eyes. There's not a personal anecdote.

And I think that's missing, that there is a little distancing from him emotionally from the voters.

RAY SUAREZ: And in contrast to John McCain, he got all the way up until the end, when he began to speak about his father coming to this country from Kenya...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. That's exactly right.

RAY SUAREZ: ... before he made any reference to himself and his own life until tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. Right.

Debate not a game-changer

RAY SUAREZ: Let's bring in the additional perspectives of Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss, and Politico's Jeanne Cummings.

Jeanne, what do you make of the last hour-and-a-half?

JEAN CUMMINGS, Politico.com: Well, it was interesting. I felt like we almost watched two debates.

The beginning focused mostly on the economy. I think, at that point, Barack Obama did a better job of talking about gas prices, and home mortgages, and trying to connect with, you know, those swing voters who are out there, whereas John McCain was talking about fixed price contracts and that sort of thing, and earmarks, earmarks, earmarks. I thought that Obama did a little better there.

When we moved into foreign affairs, clearly, John McCain hit his stride. It is his strength. And he showed, demonstrated that he's quite knowledgeable.

But I agree that I thought Obama showed that he is, as well. And it reminded me almost of the 2000 debate between Gore and Bush, in which Bush was not as knowledgeable, perhaps, as Gore. Bush went through the whole debate almost entirely saying, "Well, I agree with that, and I agree with that," to the point where it frustrated Al Gore.

And in the end, it didn't -- it didn't hurt Bush, that he had not really distinguished himself in some really sharp and significant way on foreign policy. So we'll see how voters absorb this.

RAY SUAREZ: Clarence Page, did Barack Obama pass the so-called commander-in-chief test tonight?

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: I think he did show a command of facts and issues. But, you know, David Brooks was saying he missed Ronald Reagan. I miss Mario Cuomo, who once said something about how we campaign in poetry, we govern in prose.

Tonight, both of these gentlemen were debating in prose. I think that -- I was saying to myself, gee, they think this is really a debate, because they really were debating issues like a Kennedy School seminar.

Most debates I have seen that seemed really memorable are those that are kind of dueling sound bites or joint news conferences. We complain about how they get off issues on those occasions, but they do produce some memorable exchanges.

I don't know how the folks back at the Billy Goat Grill back in Chicago watching this, if they had very many lines to cheer, but there was a barrage of facts. Both gentlemen were in command of those facts.

But I think Obama, who has had the problem in the past of being too professorial, he was quite professorial tonight. I was saying to Michael Beschloss, "He's more professorial than you, and you're a professor."

And John McCain was, you know, John McCain. I don't know how that -- those little remarks about lack of experience and all are going to play. In some ways, they were condescending. In other ways, there were folks who -- those folks who like John McCain would say, "Yes, he is more experienced."

So I don't know how many minds were changed tonight.

Obama strategy unexpected

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Beschloss, do you agree with Clarence Page that there's almost no standout encounter, no memorable exchange, no excerpt that we'll be watching 10, 20 or 30 years from now?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Yes, Ray, to save my life, if I had to quote to you a line from the last 90 minutes, I'd have a hard time. And that's pretty unusual, if you think of presidential debates.

And, you know, what surprised me was this. I thought that Barack Obama was fully credible, and nuanced, and sophisticated, fully credible as a commander-in-chief tonight.

But, you know, he was in a position where he could have attacked John McCain on three of the things that are very tough for a presidential candidate, an unpopular president of your own party, an unpopular war, and an economy that is going south very fast and has yet to be fixed.

Yet despite all of that, for a lot of this debate, John McCain was repeatedly on the offensive and, to some extent, Obama was on the defensive. I was surprised by that.

In terms of strategy, we'll see what works. But oftentimes in debates, if a candidate does go on the offensive, it does tend to work. That's what Kennedy did in 1960. It's what Ronald Reagan did in 1980. And it is what Bill Clinton did in 1992.

So I think, you know, you can certainly question the strategy, but those were two potential commanders-in-chief out there tonight.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Beschloss, thank you.