OXFORD, Miss. -- The economy is going to hell, we may be on the brink of a depression and John McCain and Barack Obama, during their first presidential debate Friday at Ole Miss, found it impossible to simply say what Congress should do -- right now for real people who are worried sick they may be losing their homes.
I've been on such a long journey covering Obama's presidential bid -- for two years now, counting the run-up -- that it's something to realize that he may well be elected president in a few weeks. He went into the debate in good shape and came out fine.
Obama defended well his position about talking to foreign leaders we do not trust, when McCain went on the offensive. "And you know, the Bush administration has come to recognize that it hasn't worked, this notion that we are simply silent when it comes to our enemies," Obama said.
But Obama could have squeezed out more from the encounter, ably moderated by PBS anchor Jim Lehrer.
Given the dire financial crisis, with Congress rushing to fashion a bailout plan, Lehrer devoted the first third of the 90-minute debate to the rescue package, even though the plan had been to devote the entire time to national security and international affairs.
Despite Lehrer's coaxing, Obama and McCain refused to engage in a conversation about a package Congress could pass. Obama was noncommittal about his vote, and McCain said he hoped he could support the measure, currently priced at $700 billion. That sum is so staggering that it made the discussion Obama and McCain had over who is more against wasteful government earmarks seem like chump change.
McCain dinged Obama after Obama bragged about how he suspended asking for earmarks for Illinois projects. "Sen. Obama suspended those requests for pork-barrel projects after he was running for president of the United States. He didn't happen to see that light there in the first three years as a member of the United States Senate," McCain said.
Showboating, McCain threatened not to come to the debate if Congress had not approved legislation by Friday. He finally relented, finding some lower threshold that justified his flying from Washington to Mississippi, presumably having gotten what he wanted with his "suspension" of his campaign.
Each man got some of what he wanted and needed from the debate, the first of three. McCain's team wanted to show that the Arizona senator, 72, is the "grown-up" while Obama, 47, pressed his argument that the Iraq war has diverted resources from Afghanistan.
Because people are now focusing on the general election campaign when they may not have been paying much attention before, Obama continued Friday to make his October 2002 opposition to the Iraq war more politically heroic than it was.
"I stood up and opposed this war, at a time when it was politically risky to do so," Obama said. At the time, Obama was considering a U.S. Senate run. His opposition to the Iraq war was hardly a local lonely stand. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) voted against the authorization, along with eight of the 10 Democrats in Illinois' House delegation.