I had waited impatiently for the first debate between the two presidential nominees. Then the news came that McCain was backing out, ostensibly to rush back to Washington where he was desperately needed to help fix the looming economic crisis. In addition, McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign until the crisis had been averted.
Obama had called McCain to suggest that they get together to develop a non-partisan united statement on the economic crisis. McCain agreed, but then later in the day unilaterally decided he would forgo the debate and suspend his campaign, inviting Obama to do the same.
Obama rightly responded that Americans needed to hear from their candidates more than ever during this crisis, saying it would be a mistake to cancel or postpone the debate. Public opinion was quick to mount against McCain’s stance. The public doesn’t want their candidates to go into hiding, especially during a crisis.
Criticism of McCain reached an apex after he canceled his appearance on Late Night with David Letterman at the last minute. Letterman spent the first twenty minutes of his show last Wednesday lambasting McCain for backing out of his commitment and for halting his campaign.
After praising McCain as a war hero, Letterman delivered a relentless series of jabs at the Republican presidential nominee, saying that he wasn’t acting like the McCain he knew. Letterman also suggested that maybe McCain could put his vice-presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, on the campaign trail in his place.
To top it off, Letterman caught McCain in a lie when at the very moment McCain was supposed to be taping Letterman’s show he was actually getting makeup applied for an appearance with an interview with Katie Couric. Letterman told his producers to show a live feed of McCain interviewing with Couric. “I’ve got a question for you,” Letterman lampooned. “Ya want a ride to the airport?” He was referring to McCain’s excuse for pulling out as a guest, saying he had to rush back to Washington because of the economic crisis. He not only didn’t rush back that day, he didn’t leave until the following morning.
On Friday, McCain was having second thoughts about pulling out of the debate. He at first said his campaign would be halted, he would not debate, and he wouldn’t even leave Washington until the crisis was over. The crisis was far from being over when McCain changed his mind and decided to debate after all. Maybe he just decided that he had made a strategic error.
When the first debate was over, it was clear to me that McCain was the weaker debater. Although he made some of his points, he didn’t rattle Obama on national security or foreign policy issues. Obama, in fact, seemed to have a better handle on foreign policy matters than McCain. And that is supposed to be McCain’s strong point.
A national poll after the debate indicated that Obama and McCain virtually tied on the foreign policy topic, but Obama was a clear and decisive winner on the home front. He continues to outpace McCain on economic issues. Obama presented a clear view of how he would handle the financial crisis as president while McCain continued to relate anecdotes about things that have happened to him in the past, the distant past.
Although pundits generally agreed that the debate was a tie or a slight Obama victory, the first debate and the McCain fiasco leading up to it should bring into focus who really is better prepared to be the leader of the free world. McCain showed himself to be ill-prepared, a vacillator, and even a liar in the days before the debate. And he failed to redeem himself when he finally did show up to talk.