The Debate

Tonight’s debate is the most fraught in my memory. The financial crisis has obscured the reality that our nation is at war, that Russia is sending out alarming signals that it is exploring the possibility of a new Cold War, and the terrorist bombing in Islamabad over the weekend suggests that we are far from a stable, friendly Middle East. So while Jim Leher will almost certainly have to ask some questions about the economy, his challenge will be to get the candidates to answer questions on foreign policy. Questions on the security of Pakistani nukes, what General Petraeus’ CentCom strategy should be and Russia’s activities in Latin America would be interesting ones to pose.

So what are the challenges to the candidates?

1. John McCain: Senator McCain needs to make sense of his actions this week. Is he being Presidential or potty? A voice of reason or a howl in the wilderness? The jury is out, and if he can make the case that he contributed meaningfully to legislative progress on a deal to ease the lending crisis, then he can do himself some good. A deal between now and 9:00 EST will be a big help to him.

McCain can also do himself some good by casting his foreign policy experience in a serious, positive light. This is not the time for more “I was surrounded by idiots” grandstanding. He should embrace progress in Iraq and celebrate it as a great American victory, and perhaps be rueful at Obama’s inability to share in the victory. Mentioning that the Iraqi legislature is working better than ours these days would be a good point to make.

McCain can hurt himself by looking angry and mean. His weakest debate performances in the primary were marred by personal pettiness that seemed small compared to the office he would like to hold. He should be thinking of Ronald Reagan and the effectiveness of good humor.

  1. Barack Obama. Senator Obama needs to make the sale to the American people that he is the one who can provide not just the promise of hopeandchage, but can actually do something specific to alleviate the current financial crisis. He will probably do his best to define McCain’s behavior this week as that of a self-absorbed crackpot, and it will be McCain’s challenge to get out in front of this and define Obama as an empty suit politician who is out of touch.

Obama can do himself some good by articulating a foreign policy that sounds serious and thoughtful. He would do well to deal in specifics that add up to a coherent policy rather than in platitudes. Up until now, he has tended towards the latter. If he can show some grit and substance, he can help himself.

As McCain has to avoid looking angry, Obama needs to not look like an elite snob. The word “arugula” should not cross his lips. It’s a tricky wicket because he has to avoid phony folksy-ness as well. He should be thinking of JFK and projecting a combination of privilege and authenticity.

Overall, McCain has something of a taller order in that if the recent polling trend is correct, he really needs a win tonight. Obama will settle for a tie, which is a lower bar. But if McCain really goes for it he could score a solid victory while Obama’s natural caution may hurt him. It’s anyone’s game going into tonight—we’ll see about the state of play tomorrow.