For Obama, a comfortable night in the end

John McCain opened strongly in his debate with Barack Obama tonight, but he faded in the second half. Ultimately, it seems unlikely that McCain cut into Obama’s lead through this performance. And Obama may have taken another small step towards making Americans comfortable with the prospect of his presidency. That Obama accomplished this by taking considerable liberties with the truth is, I suppose, beside the point.

McCain started brightly by invoking Joe the Plumber, the fellow in Ohio whose taxes Obama said he would raise in the name spreading the wealth. In the end, Obama was reduced to arguing that five years ago he would have given Joe a tax cut (in effect, he was in favor of cutting Joe’s taxes before he was against it). McCain effectively countered that Joe’s taxes shouldn’t be raised now that he’s in a position to create jobs through a business of his own. This, I think, was a win for McCain.

McCain stayed on the offensive in the next round, which pertained to the comparative merits and demerits of the campaign ads and tactics of the two candidates. McCain attacked Obama for not repudiating the claim of John Lewis that McCain and Palin have engaged in racism. He also hammered Obama for breaking his promises on public financing of his campaign. Obama responded on Lewis by ridiculing McCain for having “hurt feelings.” In the rebuttal round Obama finally, after a long-winded semi-defense of Lewis, managed to call his supporter’s comments inappropriate. Obama’s handling of this issue showed a lack of character and class, but will not hurt him with voters. But it’s possible that Obama’s persistent laughing every time McCain raised a tough point may have made a less than stellar impression.

Obama had no response on public financing. Unfortunately, McCain did not point this failure out in his rebuttal, so Obama probably got away with it. By steering the debate to Lewis and away from his broken promises on campaign financing, Obama dodged the bullet.

So too, for the most part, with Bill Ayers and ACORN. Obama falsely minimized his connection with ACORN. As to Ayers, he cited a bunch of other folks who served on the same board with Ayers and Obama, including a Republican (Arnold Weber, my father’s one-time boss at the Department of Labor, as it happens). Viewers were never informed that Obama was funneling money into radical (and ridiculous) “educational’ experiments, at times over the objection of some board members. But at least McCain was able to point out that the board funneled money to ACORN. McCain also noted that Obama’s political career was launched in Ayers’ living room. Obama denied this. Whether the denial was based on the meaning of “launched” or the meaning of “living room” was not clear.

McCain will probably be criticized by his supporters for framing the Ayers issue in terms of the need to know more about his connection with Obama. But Obama’s (often dishonest) defenses to specific lines of attack are not easy to penetrate in this kind of forum. Putting the issue out as something that needs to be looked at more carefully may be as much as McCain could have hoped to accomplish tonight. Perhaps it will be part of the mix if/when voters make their final evaluation of Obama’s fitness for the presdency.

Obama concluded this segment by stating that Ayers won’t be advising him as president. He said that people like Warren Buffet would advise him on the economy and that Joe Biden and Dick Lugar would advise him on foreign policy. But in fact, Obama’s go to person on foreign policy (until she was forced out for insulting Hillary Clinton) was Samantha Power, whose hostility towards Israel (among other less than mainstream views) we have documented in some detail.

The next round was about the vice presidential nominees. Obama tried to damn Sarah Palin with faint praise. McCain tried (successfully I thought) to damn Joe Biden by talking about various key foreign policy issues where Biden was wrong. For once, though, McCain forgot to mention the surge.

McCain then got in some good shots at Obama on free trade with Colombia. Unfortunately, this issue probably lacks much resonance.

McCain lost his momentum when the debate turned to health care. Obama dissembled, as usual, when he claimed that his plan would do nothing to impair employer-provided plans. As Yuval Levin has explained, Obama’s plan is designed to, and would, drive people into the government’s plan. But McCain failed to explain this or effectively to defend his plan from Obama’s unfair attacks. Instead, he returned to Joe the Plumber. Joe served McCain well the first time, but this time I think McCain needed to talk turkey on his health care plan, which has been attacked so persistently in Obama’s ads. He failed to do so.

McCain tried to rally on judicial nominees. He was able effectively to use the Gang of 14 deal, which Obama rejected, to show his bipartisanship. Any time McCain can look centrist and Obama reflexively liberal, it’s a win for McCain.

Obama countered by bringing in Lilly Ledbetter from left field. She’s the woman who famously had her pay discrimination suit dismissed because she missed the statute of limitations. This is an issue in the election because Obama supported, and McCain opposed, legislation that would absolve future Ledbetters from having to bring their suits when the issues are still fresh and the witnesses are still available. Obama once again dissembled, claiming that Ledbetter couldn’t have sued earlier because she didn’t know about the alleged violation. In fact, Ledbetter’s sworn testimony shows that she did know about the violation and simply sat on her rights.

The question about judges was framed to tie into the issue of abortion. McCain attacked Obama effectively for voting against, and then “present,” on two reasonable (and in my mind compelling) pieces of legislation in Illinois. The first was to provide life saving treatment to babies born during an attempted abortion. The second was to ban partial birth abortion. Obama managed, I think, to talk his way around both votes. But by raising those ridiculous “present” votes, McCain probably scored a little bit.

The final question had to do with education. Obama talked well about this issue. So well that one would never suspect that, when he had large sums of money to devote to improving education in Chicago, he squandered the opportunity by supporting, among other things, anti-American, African “rites of passage” programs.

Towards the end of the discussion, Obama asserted: “I doubled the number of charter schools in Illinois.” I didn’t know a state legislator could do that.

McCain’s closing statement was choppy and not terribly effective. Obama’s wasn’t much better. But then, it probably didn’t need to be.

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