Round One

The first Presidential debate last night was notable for playing to type. Neither candidate broke from talking points, neither one made a gaffe, and both men won on the grounds where they are most comfortable — John McCain on foreign policy, and Barack Obama on domestic issues.

The debate took place amid the backdrop of the financial crisis, and perhaps most disappointing was how neither man seemed to have anything useful to say about it. Mr. Obama played his familiar tune about deregulation being the root cause of it all, and both men dared to denounce “greed” and promise to protect the taxpayers. Then each veered into their favorite economic themes of spending restraint for the Republican, and eight years of “trickle down” for Mr. Obama.

[Round One] AP

What neither man showed was any real insight about our financial market issues, or any political courage in offering a solution. Perhaps this is rooted in the traditional calculation not to make a mistake in a close race. But if Americans were looking for guidance on how we got here and where to go from here, they didn’t find it last night. The current, and much-maligned, occupant of the White House did much better on Wednesday night on that score.

As planned by the commission on debates, most of the night was devoted to foreign policy and there we give the clear edge to Mr. McCain. This is the ground where the 72-year-old is most comfortable, and you could see it in his self-confidence, as well as his command of history and facts. He showed it too in the specificity of his answers, notably on Russia: Watch Ukraine, he said, and “the Crimea,” because Vladimir Putin’s Georgian expedition is a prelude to Russian adventurism there.

By contrast, Mr. Obama was well briefed, but almost in the way a Ph.D. candidate gives his dissertation defense. He knew the subject but without the conviction or detail that comes from wide experience. One surprise: Mr. Obama declared that both Georgia and Ukraine should get an immediate action plan to enter NATO. This is welcome as a policy matter, though we have our doubts how much this conviction would hold up in an Obama Administration as Mr. Putin growled and made trouble for the U.S. in Iran and Eastern Europe.

Every Presidential race is a decision on Commander in Chief, and this election more than most. Americans will have to decide if they can trust Mr. Obama’s assertions that he’d combine a desire for diplomacy with toughness when it counts. Our own sense is that Mr. Obama sometimes seemed flustered by Mr. McCain’s attacks on his foreign policy “naivete,” in particular on Iraq and his failure to support the “surge.”

The Democrat tried to turn the Iraq debate back to the original decision to go to war in 2002, and that will play well with those who are decidedly antiwar. We doubt it will play with voters who want to make sure we don’t squander the gains of the last year.

Where Mr. Obama did score better was on the domestic front, where he tried repeatedly to link Mr. McCain to President Bush and to what he called a failed “economic philosophy.” We don’t agree with most of his ideas, but amid the current economic unease Mr. McCain is going to have to do much better than falling back repeatedly on spending cuts. Voters want fiscal discipline, but they also have a certain deserved skepticism that anyone can restrain Leviathan.

What they really want to know is who has a plan for renewed prosperity. Mr. McCain needs a better response to Mr. Obama’s attack on his tax and health care policies, as well as a riposte to the Democrat’s claim that he’ll cut taxes for 95% of Americans. We look forward to Round Two.

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