For what it’s worth

… I thought McCain won last night’s presidential debate. Not that he won the argument, you understand — I thought Obama had the better of him on that score — but these things rarely turn on the underlying arguments, and more on how the candidates presented themselves. And on these personal qualities, I thought McCain did his cause more good than Obama did. He was warm, passionate, funny, and combative, well-stocked with folksy anecdotes, often putting Obama on the defensive. He was also exasperating, frequently running roughshod over the moderator, Jim Lehrer and generally seeing how much he could get away with.

By contrast, Obama was cool, analytical, polite — all qualities I admire, but perhaps less likely to impress the viewing audience. I hate myself for marking him down for this, but the usual way in which the political pros coach their charges to respond to attacks is to attack back — which of course does nothing but drag the proceedings further down in the muck. Instead, Obama found himself all too often explaining why McCain’s latest salvo was off-base, which he generally did a good job of, but at the expense of using up precious time he might have preferred to spend making his own points.

But overall I came away from the debates with heightened respect for both men. I’d be comfortable with either man in the White House — vice-presidential choices aside. And the debate itself was exemplary — substantive without being stuffy, feisty without being a mudwrestle. There are real differences of policy between these two candidates — over taxes, over health care, over Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran — and they were usefully explored. The section on how to deal with the financial crisis was less helpful, but it was tacked on at the last minute in what was supposed to be a foreign-policy debate; presumably both candidates will have a better handle on the situation by the time they debate the economy.

Obama had more to lose, as the frontrunner, and did himself no harm. But McCain, who’d had a terrible couple of weeks leading into the debate, may just have put himself back in the game.

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