The second debate between the rival presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama came across on television as a remarkably sedate, low-voltage and perhaps at times tedious affair, with no trace of the personal attacks that had enlivened the campaign in the last few days.
From the charges that had flown back and forth recently between the rival campaigns, you might have expected good brawling blood-and-guts politics when you tuned in on Tuesday night.
But what viewers got was a pair of candidates who seemed unwilling or unable to break out of their straitjacket of talking points.
By the halfway point the only winner that had emerged was financial wizard (and Obama supporter) Warren Buffett, who both candidates suggested would make a good secretary of the Treasury in the new administration.
Each candidate reeled off the need for more tax breaks (for energy efficient cars, for example) and low tax rates (“Let's not raise taxes on anybody today,” McCain said) and an assertive, interventionist foreign policy (both candidates called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan, and Obama called for American financial aid to Georgia, Poland, Estonia, Latvia “and all of the nations that were former Soviet satellites”).
How long will the Chinese keep lending?
But as they did this, there was a huge unspoken question: How long will the Chinese, Japanese and the other foreign creditors of the United States continue to lend their money so that President Obama or President McCain can engage in a policy of tax breaks at home and free-spending interventionism abroad?
After all, the revenue must come from someone.
And as most Americans look at their investments this week, they know they are for now, and perhaps for a long while, poorer.
Both candidates said at the outset of the debate and at its end that the financial market turmoil had left Americans financially “hurting,” as McCain put it.
China, one of America's major creditors through its purchase of U.S. Treasury securities, did make a few appearances from time to time during the 90-minute conversation.
McCain mentioned the $500 billion America is borrowing from China and Obama declared a few moments later, “We can’t keep borrowing from the Chinese.” But how to stop was the question that neither man seemed interested in.
As with their first debate in Mississippi two weeks ago, neither seemed at all ready to acknowledge that the financial crisis of the past few weeks, and America’s diminished wealth, will radically limit the next president’s policy options.
Obama did say at one point, "we may have to cut some spending, although I disagree with Senator McCain about an across-the-board freeze." He did not mention any specific cuts.
McCain urged a spending freeze — but exempted defense (which is nearly one-fifth of federal spending), Veterans Affairs and "some other vital programs."
And he could not admit what most Capitol observers know: If elected president he'll confront a Democratic-controlled Congress that would likely oppose any spending freeze.
‘Goodies’ and growing debt
At times each candidate would promise what McCain would call “goodies” if they had been offered to a corporation but in fact were “goodies” for taxpayers — revenue-losing tax breaks — and then just moments later they would remind the viewer that America had taken on too much debt.
The truth that tax breaks lead to lost revenue — and therefore to a need to take on more debt — was never squarely faced by either candidate.
At one point Obama promised to “make sure that we're providing (tax) incentives so that you can buy a fuel-efficient car that's made right here in the United States of America, not in Japan.”
But only a minute later he said, “We've got to show that we've got good (spending) habits” and warned that “we're running up trillion-dollar debts that we're passing on to the next generation.”
The financial debate was all curiously haphazard, disjointed and in need of a clear-headed financial counselor, perhaps Buffett or perhaps the head of the Chinese central bank, to get the candidates to start adding up their numbers.
As for their personal debating style and stage presence, Obama came across as he usually does, careful, unperturbed and a bit aloof. This is what the public by now will have come to expect.
McCain showed less of the fire and feistiness that he had shown as recently as in the New Hampshire primary.
And if you were not a student of history, or a political junkie, you probably had trouble with McCain’s abbreviated, telegraphic manner of speaking: He refers to long-ago events (President Reagan deploying Marines to Lebanon) and seems to assume the audience will understand the reference without him explaining it.
And he left listeners in the dark about why, in his view, U.S. intervention in Rwanda would be laudable while intervention in Lebanon was disastrous.
Both men seemed a little lackluster, tired and perhaps preoccupied with something greater than the debate itself.