For most of the debate Friday night, Sen. Barack Obama was the one who presented himself as presidential and strong. And Sen. John McCain appeared to be the guy who was wavering.
Then came Iran.
That’s when Obama’s mouth dried up, and he appeared to be standing alone at that terrible border between presenting yourself as presidential and dealing with that knock on the door in the middle of the night, with the aide outside saying, “Mr. President, the planes are in the air.”
[. . .]
McCain hammered at Obama’s insistence that he would sit down with the crazed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. McCain said this proves Obama has demonstrated a dangerous naivete and a willingness to legitimize Ahmadinejad’s standing, even as the Iranian boss develops nukes and threatens to wipe Israel off the map.
“What Sen. Obama doesn’t seem to understand, when you sit down across the table from a person who has said Israel is a stinking corpse, it is not only naive, it is dangerous,” McCain said.
Obama protested, but not too much.
“So let me get this straight,” McCain said, still on the attack, “you sit down with Ahmadinejad and he says, ‘We’re going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,’ and you say, ‘No, you’re not.’ Oh, please.”
Through it all, Obama appealed to Lehrer that he had something to say, and McCain kept pounding him to the body, and Lehrer said he had a question to ask, and Obama deferred. He let Lehrer change the subject.
It was a fine debating tactic, certainly a careful retreat from danger, but it is at such moments in debates where we learn the most about those who would lead.
To be sure, Kass noted good moments for Obama as well. But the discussion concerning Iran appeared to be the defining one for him.