Every pundit in the world said before this debate that all Obama had to do was not, in polite terms, defecate the bed. He metaphorically woke up feces-free. McCain needed to do some Criss Angel magic, and he ended up looking like Gob Bluth. While I think the debate was relatively close (at least compared to what we saw the last two times), this is because McCain performed better in the second half of the debate than the first. However, McCain certainly did not "whip Obama's you-know-what" in this debate like he promised he would.
McCain was the first to speak and it seemed that he was nervous as hell (which he probably was, knowing that his campaign is in tatters and he needed a "game changer." He repeated words a few times, said "Fannie and Freddie Mae," and recycled some of those stump speeches he's been using the for past few weeks. This nervousness wore off, but the fact that Obama opened up the debate very well (middle class tax cut, let people dip into IRA early with no penalty - why hasn't this been brought up before, a good idea) only highlighted McCain's weak opening.
Then there was the government spending issue. McCain said that he was going to issue an overall spending freeze; in other words, no new spending. In McCain's words, he wants to take a hatchet to the problem, and then clean up with a scalpel. Not a great surgical analogy (if that's what he was going for, with the whole introduction of the scalpel). Obama's answer gave me a little hope because he seemed to be focused on the long term issues, rather than some short-term fixes to placate the people (*COUGH* $700 billion bailout *COUGH*). Health care for everyone now to ensure they are healthy in the future (driving Medicare and Medicaid costs down), solve dependence on foreign oil (to drive down oil imports in the long-term), etc. I've said numerous times that one major pitfall of this country is its lack of foresight, and tonight Obama gave us a glimpse of foresight. Not only that, he also discussed individual responsibility, which many politicians don't like talking about because it reminds people of a grim reality: at the end of the day, you are ultimately responsible for yourself and no amount of government action will drastically improve your life, only you can do that.
McCain had a good one-liner and I thought he was going to capture a large part of the debate with it, but unfortunately I thought he followed up with little substance. He and Palin have been faulting Obama and Biden for looking toward the past when America needs a solution for the future, and McCain echoed this sentiment when he said, "I'm not George Bush and if you wanted to run against him, you should have run four years ago." McCain followed this up with unimpressive rhetoric and Obama was able to turn the phrase back on McCain by taking the time to highlight the similarities between the current president and McCain (in slightly more impressive rhetoric, though not much better). After that, McCain did not have any other memorable quotes that really stung Obama.
And a big thank you to Bob Scheiffer, who asked the candidates to grow a pair and say what they have been saying to each other through ads and press conferences like gossiping high school girls to their face. Obama started off by admitting that the two campaigns had certainly put out ads that were less than honorable, but the American people deserved better and they should put it behind them and talk about the issues. McCain began to agree, before blaming Obama for the way the campaign had devolved into a passive aggressive showcase by not agreeing to do the town hall debates McCain wanted to do months ago. At this Obama needed to respond, did, and the talk went to Ayers, which I think Obama refuted even better than before (pointing out Reagan's friend Annenberg funded the board and other prominent conservatives served on it). McCain just threw out the old, tired half-truths of how "Obama's political career was launched in Ayers' living room," etc. Then the ACORN thing, which I think both candidates exaggerated (I think Obama had done a bit more with the group, but not to the extent that McCain would like you to believe). And McCain got very emotional when discussing John Lewis' recent remarks about him, saying that segregation and the church bombing of four little girls was the worst part of America's history (if only; I would have picked the enslavement of an entire people based on the "one drop rule" and the color of one's skin, but to each his own). Obama repudiated Lewis' comments, and brought up the fact that members of McCain and Palin's rallies have deemed him a terrorist and have expressed a desire for his murder. McCain did not explicitly repudiate this and instead made excuses for it, then tried to insinuate that Obama had insulted veterans of all major 20th century wars. Obama played Bob's question well, tried to push it away, but McCain couldn't resist and while he may have scored points in the Republican base, McCain's continuing accusations probably did more harm than good in the eyes of the undecided.
While talking about their VP choices, McCain did a curious thing. He brought up special needs and the need for a better focus on it. Obama agreed, but reminded McCain about his spending freeze and how, under his hatchet to scalpel plan, special needs programs would also see no new spending. This would not be a big deal, but McCain brought up autism later in the debate while talking about education and special needs, and then mentioned it one more time in the context of Palin and her "knowing more than most" about autism. This made me think, is McCain saying that Palin knows more about autism than most because her son has down syndrome (two unrelated conditions), or is he framing the entire special needs argument (an incredibly diverse range of conditions, depending on whether one is discussing mental or physical special needs, or both) in the incredibly complex condition of autism? I thought it was weird that McCain kept bringing it up, and I won't speculate here about his motives. He also sounded paternal when discussing Palin, saying he's "proud" of her. As someone I spoke to after the debate pointed out, that's what a father says to a daughter. Hopefully many Americans did not share that view, because it shows that Palin is young and McCain is old, two things that the McCain campaign does not want to highlight.
As a last major thing I want to say, there was one point in the debate where I thought McCain was going to go apeshit. It was when Obama began discussing the assassination of labor leaders in Colombia after McCain discussed NAFTA. It looked like pure, unadulterated rage was building inside of McCain before he rolled his eyes and wrote something down on his legal pad. In that span of 4-5 seconds, I was legitimately worried. It was scary to see McCain's eyes like that. That's really all I have to say on that, just wanted to point it out to see if other people thought the same thing.
In conclusion, McCain needed a "game changer" and he didn't create one out of his own doing and Obama did not give him one through a major gaffe. Obama did well, but did not completely dominate McCain. McCain did OK, but could not make up the deficit he lost in the first half of the debate. My roommate pointed out that on InTrade, Obama is favored to win the presidency by 4:1 odds (80 points to 20 points). It will be interesting to see what happens after this debate. However, being a Red Sox fan for my entire life, I never say that something is a sure thing, even if many others do. While I think that Obama just might win the election, this is American politics and, like the 1990s Red Sox, anything can happen and expecting an outcome as a certainty only worsens the blow if it doesn't come true. Peace.
Photos - McCain, Scheiffer, and Obama at the final debate held at Hofstra University (www.chinadaily.com.cn), Bob Scheiffer (www.columbia.edu)