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From the Editorial Board
Just Who Is the Maverick?

McCain being touched in ways he never anticipated

Strip away the theatrics of the week leading up to the John McCain-Barack Obama encounter. Strip away the dizzying spin of after-debate assessments—who landed how many jabs, who was the cleverer, who was the cooler, the more impetuous, the more rambling or anecdotal, the least stumbling, the more relevant, the best pronouncer of guttural leaders’ names. What you’re left with is a choice between two compelling, sharp, accomplished leaders.

What differentiates them was clear before Friday night, though never to as broad an audience. It’s not experience, integrity or even age. It’s temperance and philosophy. In both, McCain is more a continuation than a break from the no-regulation, no-diplomacy, shoot-from-the-hip approach that gave us financial ruin at home, and open-ended wars and diminished respect abroad. McCain thinks it’s working. Obama doesn’t.

 

No voter could walk away from the debate not knowing that McCain remains essentially a cold warrior more comfortable with isolationism’s stick than diplomacy’s nuance. Stay in Iraq until victorious. And a politician who knows how to reach across party lines as long as conventional lines aren’t crossed: Lower taxes, fewer rules, freeze domestic spending if necessary, and don’t count on government as an investor in the nation’s future (except when Wall Street firms are on the line).

Obama’s approach is equally clear. Good governance, missing for the past eight years, is what can repair the financial wreckage—not further enmity toward government. And on foreign policy, going it alone doesn’t work. Alliances and diplomacy did and can work again. Iraq was and remains the wrong war, no matter the “success” of President Bush’s “surge” that only fixed what Bush wrecked, but not the wreckage of Iraq’s future. Meanwhile, the menaces of Iran and al-Qaida enjoy surges of their own.

But in presidential debates, it’s never about details. Nor was it Friday night. It’s not for nothing that the Obama-McCain debates have been compared with the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 -- or that the first independent viewer CBS interviewed after Friday night’s debate drew on the comparison to frame his own impressions. Then, as Friday, there was no knockout blow in the debating. Then, as Friday, the exchanges were more bland than penetrating, the “sharp retorts few” (as a newspaper headline had it in 1960), the heat rare, the civility surprisingly sustained and the defining lines almost nonexistent. Yet the contrasts, then as now, were razor-sharp and unavoidable.

So were the assumptions that were turned on their head.

Back then, Nixon was perceived as far more experienced than John Kennedy, especially in foreign policy. Like McCain, Nixon had been a Navy man, had served in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate before serving as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president for eight years. Kennedy had served six years in the House and eight years in the Senate and was just four years younger, but even leading Democrats such as former President Harry Truman and future President Lyndon Johnson called him “immature” and inexperienced in comparison with Nixon (a prequel to Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden calling Obama inexperienced during this year’s primaries).

What Nixon didn’t grasp, and McCain seemed at a loss to grasp, was resumes don’t win voters’ confidence at this late stage, especially when they’re brandished as self-evident virtues. Self-assurance, sound temperament and a mastery of the challenges here and now are more likely to.

“It is not the policies or the parties that have come through in these debates,” columnist James Reston wrote after the last Nixon-Kennedy debate, “so much as the personalities and the qualities of the men themselves. Mr. Kennedy was confident from the start that if he could get on the same screen with the vice president, he could deal with the problem of his comparative youth and the charge of immaturity, and the general impression here is that he has succeeded in his objective.” The same words apply to Obama.

Immediate polls giving him the edge aside, Obama didn’t “win” the debate Friday. Nor did McCain lose it. They were both poised and in control, Obama maybe a bit more than McCain. They were both on top of their geopolitical trivia, McCain maybe a bit more than Obama. But to the estimated 100 million Americans who watched, all of them seeing the two for the first time toe to toe and millions seeing each speak more than sound bites for the first time, any notion of Obama as immature, inexperienced or incapable of “understanding” this nation’s problems or leading the country through them was shattered for good.

That’s the point McCain’s script failed to anticipate. That, and—for the segment of the electorate that remembers the calamitous years that shaped the Kennedy-Nixon era—who came across as the true maverick of this race.

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