The Belmont Presidential Stakes

Last night’s town hall presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville was supposed to suit John McCain.  Barack Obama wasn’t supposed to be comfortable without his constant companion, the teleprompter.  But both did better — and worse — than their supporters wanted them to.

In June’s Belmont Stakes, the heavy favorite — Big Brown — just ran out of gas.  Jockey Kent Desormeaux eased off, and the big horse coasted in, far out of the running.  This time the presumed favorite in the town hall format — McCain — finished neck-and-neck with the teleprompter-deprived challenger, Obama.

There was very little drama and emotion, no “gotcha” moment that either candidate will be able to use in the next four weeks. 

Obama won the coin toss and began strongly on the merits of the Wall Street bailout, for which both candidates voted.  He said that taxpayers should be treated as investors.  But the evening seemed to turn from debate to a bidding contest.

McCain was much more effective on domestic issues than he was in the first debate. But he shocked a lot of conservatives by proposing — as a part of the bailout — that the government should directly buy up mortgages that people can no longer pay and renegotiate them to account for shrinking home values and thus ensure people will be able to stay in their homes.

That power, as Obama pointed out, is already part of the bailout package. But does McCain really want to have the federal government become the new “countrywide” mortgage broker?  Obama agrees it should be. The sum is fiscally terrifying.

The U.S. government is about to become our most bureaucratic, wasteful and inept mortgage broker.  $700 billion for the bailout will be just the taxpayers’ down payment.

Obama — not wanting to be out-bid on populism — said the AIG executives, after being bailed out, took a $400,000 corporate retreat. He demanded that the money be recouped and the executives fired.

Both candidates seemed to accept health care and energy as the highest priorities, Obama adding education as the third.  Health care seemed to produce the biggest disagreement.

Moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC asked them if healthcare was a right, a privilege, or a responsibility.

McCain insisted health care is a responsibility. He favors a free market in health care, with people able to buy health insurance across state lines. 

Obama says health care is a right.  He took on McCain’s idea of national insurance bidding on the ground that insurance companies would find a state that allowed them to get away with the least benefits and settle there.  People should be able to get the coverage they want, he said.

Both declined to say there would be a two-year deadline to reform social security.  McCain took the more responsible and unpopular position, saying that we cannot afford to provide the same level of benefits to future retirees that those who now get social security receive.  McCain proposed a commission — like the military base closure commission — that would make recommendations Congress would have to decide on straight up-or-down votes.

On taxes, McCain continued his refrain that no taxes should be raised.  Obama countered with his liberal class warfare attack, saying McCain’s plan would give Wall Street CEO’s another $700,000 a year in tax relief.  Obama wants taxes to be “fair,” which means they will rise to pay for Obama’s new $800 billion in spending plans.

It was obvious that the candidates dislike each other personally.  Obama spent much of McCain’s talking time smiling vacantly at him.  McCain exhibited a nervous energy, taking notes and crossing his arms across his chest. 

They took turns smacking each other down. At one point, McCain called Obama “that one” in reference to a vote they disagreed on and repeatedly charging — correctly — that Obama has never taken on the leadership of his party to create real bipartisan action.  Obama, in turn, mocked McCain for the moment he sang, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of an old Beach Boys song.  McCain explained the obvious, that he’d been joking with a friend.

But McCain left his best weapons on the shelf. There was no mention of racist Rev. Jeremiah Wright or unrepentant terrorist William Ayers.  If those weapons aren’t used face to face with Obama, McCain will have abandoned a huge advantage.

Both candidates stuck to their base strategies, Obama trying to tie McCain to Bush and McCain saying again and again that Obama was too inexperienced to be a steady hand on foreign policy.  And on those issues, there was more agreement than not.

The disagreements were not new.  Obama — falling back from Biden’s insistence in the vice presidential debate that Obama didn’t say he’d negotiate with enemies without preconditions — said that Bush’s failure to talk with North Korea and Iran propelled their nuclear programs to the advanced point they are today. 

On Pakistan, Obama stuck to the unarguable idea that we’d strike at bin Laden if we knew where he was and the Pakistanis refused to act.  McCain, in turn, stuck to his admiration of Gen. David Petraeus, saying that Petraeus would implement the same strategy that had succeeded in Iraq. 

Obama challenged McCain, saying that Afghanistan was the central theater in the war.  McCain didn’t insist, as he has in the past, that Iraq was by the definition of both Gen. Petraeus and Osama bin Laden.

Brokaw raised the statements of British commander in Afghanistan Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, British ambassador in Kabul, who both said they believed the war in Afghanistan couldn’t be won. 

Obama returned to his theme that we have to pressure the Iraqis to take more responsibility in their nation, withdraw American troops and move some of them to Afghanistan, claiming that NATO commander Gen. McKiernan was “desperate” for more help.

McCain stuck with the Petraeus strategy in Iraq that he believes should be applied in Afghanistan.  Saying he’d act responsibly, McCain didn’t voice any need to adapt the strategy to the much larger nation of Afghanistan.  Neither candidate seemed aware of the huge “safe havens” problem in northwest Pakistan where White House senior officials have told me one million Islamic fighters are living, training and planning more attacks on America and American interests.

The two had little differences on Russia, Iran and other foreign policy challenges.  Both emphasized the need to gain the support of allies and denigrated the idea of waiting for UN approval before taking military action.

After the debate, there were perfunctory hand shakes after which McCain apparently left quickly, though Obama and his wife stayed to work the room.  McCain and his wife were nowhere to be seen. 

Did McCain think he’d lost the debate?  His leaving so quickly left a bad impression.  He didn’t lose, but he didn’t win. 

The results of last night’s debate probably won’t be enough to reverse the polls to favor McCain.  That leaves the last debate — to be held next Wednesday night — as McCain’s last chance to overcome Obama’s small but significant advantages. 

Neither candidate closed the deal with American voters last night.  That raises the expectations for — and the importance of — next week’s debate to levels both may be unable to achieve. 

They’re still neck-and-neck.  This one will go down to the wire.