Obama and MCain flunked the first debate

At least the Americans hold the things. Our leaders duck them pleading “ but we have Prime Minister’s Questions.” The first presidential debate lived down to the time honoured reputation of these events and was a dud. Pity the poor US media who have to analyse every flicker. Even so I still don’t know who won. This was slightly surprising, given the current atmosphere of crisis and the excitement of the earlier campaign. Even with America teetering on the brink of financial breakdown Obama and McCain failed to inspire. Neither would admit that taxes are going up and that public spending must come down.

McCain was far more aggressive and arrogant and repeated time after time “Senator Obama doesn’t understand, he doesn’t quite get it.” He sounded like a wartime President who wouldn’t know what to do if he didn’t have a war to fight. Obama was constrained by a line defined by the Stars and Stripes beyond which he dare not cross. No space in this format for soaring change rhetoric when you get down to the ishoos. In the battle over who could be more mawkish about the military both were wearing dead soldier’s bracelets like medieval maidens sporting favours. In the patriot game there was no contest if you like that sort of thing. For me that was where the culture gap between us and them yawned most widely. To the NY Times, it was the clash of generations. McCain banged on about “looking after the veterans” so much you would have thought he’d just demobbed three million men at the end of WW2. The huge issue of Iraq shrunk to a dispute over whether Obama would impose a strict timetable for withdrawal or not. McCain obviously thought the success of the surge was his killer point. Obama seemed to acknowledge that by diverting to get tough on Afghanistan, even if it meant treading on Pakistan. “If we have bin Laden in our sights and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act then we should take him out. “ On Russia, McCain had the soundbite; “ I looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters, K,G and B.” During the Cold War, language like that would have caused uproar. McCain’s summing up was cringe-,making ( those vets again) and arrogant ( his endless “experience” i.e. lots of visits to meet the troops), and fluffy, (he called it a “fiscal” not a financial crisis and referred to “Qadari” of Pakistan when he meant President “Zadari”). Obama’s wind up began to lift the debate but too late. “We have challenges with China that owns trillions of our debt and we have weakened our capacity to project our power across the world.”

Who won the debate? Frankly, with this sort of quality, who cares? But I agree, McCain was kinda weird. Next time, we can only hope they do more than limit damage.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London