Wise, but old, hand overtakes strong, energetic neophyte

That’s the upshot of tonight’s first presidential debate in Oxford, MS. The debate cannot be judged, though, without taking note of the drama behind whether it was going to take place to begin with.

McCain took a gamble this week and suspended his campaign so he could fly back to Washington and broker a deal on Hank Paulson’s bailout plan. Obama throws a grenade on the table by ineptly calling Republican doubts about the plan a product of their misunderstanding the “need for the rush.” McCain takes the wise course–he listens. Some tempers flare when the Republican congressional delegation in the room express doubts about the plan. President Bush attempts to bring it back in line then Barney Frank starts screaming, the meeting adjourns. Obama failed. Democrats walked out in disgust over Republican concerns.

McCain then agrees from a weak position (Obama has gained in the polls since McCain stepped off the trail) to attend the debate anyway. One felt going into it that McCain needed to address his reasoning for his decision and back it up at the debate. He didn’t do that.
This was not a major problem for McCain, but the elephant was in the room. His performance was solid and steady and he seemed relaxed and ready with real answers. McCain missed a tremendous opportunity to point out early on the “S Corp” problem in Obama’s tax plan which will increase taxes on the “wealthy” earning more than $250,000 per year. This would apply not only to individual income, but expand the tax burden in sole proprietorships which are a large pool of employers. This was a big opportunity missed to put Obama on the defensive about jobs.

Obama seemed cool and confident, but he lapsed regularly into huffing and puffing tones when he wanted to object to points McCain had made. Obama was in his element at the first part of the debate when talking about the economy. One was left with the impression he was in control and had a plan. McCain didn’t seem to have a plan at all. And Obama scored points for “change” which seemed to land well though the substance is lacking. He refused to clarify how he would pay for the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. He stood by his tax increases on the “wealthy.”

The two candidates seemed to have left with a draw here. But McCain did take Obama to school on foreign policy naming leaders he had worked with in the past and clarifying points Obama made. If there is any line which might stick out from the discussion it would have to be McCain’s comment,

“So let me get this right. We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, “We’re going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,” and we say, “No, you’re not”? Oh, please.”

Obama was forced to agree with McCain eight times, and he seemed on his heels quite a bit.

McCain left the elephant in the room on the suspension of his campaign and then walked out and left it there.

Obama seemed stoic and “prepared” rather than confident and thoughtful. He lacked a clear agenda, and his problem with providing details for his plans as President were once again lacking. One left with the impression that Obama was reacting to McCain and trying to sound thoughtful insted of providing thoughtful answers to the questions.

McCain is not at all flashy. And compared to Obama, he sounds quite rough. Politics is a game of impressions, and McCain rarely leaves an “impression” upon you. And he missed important opportunities to jab as Obama’s weak points as Sarah Palin did in Minnesota.

Overall, McCain came out slightly ahead. If the poll on The Drudge Report is any indication, though (and it is truly unscientific), McCain won handily. At 12:05pm EST with 129,000 votes cast, 68% of respondents said McCain won the debate.

Based on the dynamics of it, I would have to somewhat grudgingly agree.