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Was The Economic Portion Tonight Even Close?

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever (Wiley, 2008).

“I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy,” John McCain said tonight in one of many attacks on his rival’s maturity, judgment, and experience on national security issues. But it was McCain, during a debate that he had proposed postponing, who stumbled from tactic to tactic, while Obama pursued a steady strategy.

In a lengthy debate without dramatic moments, the tone was set in the early exchanges about the economy. Both candidates and their advisers must have known that they would be asked about the financial crisis. But only Obama was prepared with a set of principles establishing that he stands with middle class taxpayers, and that he recognizes the need to stabilize the banking system.

McCain, however, talked process--”we are seeing, for the first time in a long time, Republicans and Democrats together, sitting down”--while adding, almost as an afterthought, “I also warned about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and warned about corporate greed and excess, and CEO pay, and all that.” For Americans skeptical of bailing out Wall Street with $700 billion, the words “and all that” should speak volumes about McCain’s dismissal of their doubts.

As the debate turned to broader economic issues, Obama made sure to express his understanding of “folks out there who’ve been struggling before this crisis took place”  and “the underlying issues that have led wages and incomes for ordinary Americans to go down--a health care system that is broken, energy policies that are not working.” Echoing Bill Clinton in 1992, Obama ticked off his policies that would revive the economy and ease the squeeze on middle class families, from fixing healthcare to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and investing in education.

For his part, McCain focused like a laser beam on ... earmarks in federal spending. These projects--all of which he dismisses as “pork”--account for $18 billion a year, but play a more important part in the morality play to which he reduces domestic policy: the conflict between country and corruption. While repeatedly accusing Obama of larding the federal budget with projects for his home state of Illinois, McCain set traps for himself. By calling for a federal budget freeze, he left himself open to charges that he would cut funding for education, environmental protection, new energy sources, and health care. And by saying next to nothing about these domestic challenges, he lent credence to the suspicions that he knows little and cares less about Americans’ economic anxieties.

Once the debate turned to national security, the dynamic changed, and Obama mostly played defense. By repeatedly saying, “I agree with John McCain,” he sounded gracious while declining to differ on many issues. But, here, too, Obama set down clear principles, while McCain mostly didn’t. Obama stood by his views that the United States never should have invaded Iraq, the real fight is against Al Qaeda, the major battleground is Afghanistan, and relations with Russia should not become so enflamed that the threat of loose nukes is increased.

McCain, for his part, displayed knowledge and passion on foreign policy, but also a pugnacity towards Obama that may have offended independents and undecided Democrats. Those who watched the entire debate may have wondered where this alert and animated McCain was when the subject was economics.

The next debate--and most of the next five weeks of campaigning--will be about the economy. Obama set the stage for dominating this debate; McCain floundered from freezes to earmarks.

Now, could you please tell me again which candidate doesn’t understand the difference between strategy and tactics?