You can divide last night's debate into two parts: the argument about the economy, and everything afterward. In the first section, my basic reaction was Both of these guys are full of shit. In the second, my reaction was Obama is a mixed bag. McCain is a trigger-happy lunatic. I guess I prefer Obama. I'm still trying to figure out how McCain thinks he can reconcile his fiscally conservative rhetoric with the aggressive and expensive foreign policy he prefers.
Does that mean Obama "won"? Who knows? At some point in the last three decades, the modal pundit moved from frankly discussing how he personally felt about the positions espoused in a debate to second-guessing how the average uninformed voter might feel. This leads to a lot of projection, as writers mistake their preconceptions for the action actually transpiring on the screen. Here, for example, is Amy Holmes at National Review:
McCain won, hands down, particularly when the conversation shiffted to war and national security. McCain was comfortable, fluent, principled and direct. Obama was weak and defensive.
There are many words to describe McCain's composure last night, but comfortable surely isn't one of them. And maybe I'm just stuck on the contrast with John Kerry, but Obama didn't seem weak and defensive to me; he stood his ground and hit back. I didn't always agree with what he had to say—when it came to NATO expansion, he sounded as crazy as his opponent—but he sure seemed to believe it himself.
They say the real winner of a debate is the man who exceeds expectations, so in that spirit I'll give the prize to Jim Lehrer. I haven't been a fan of his in the past, but I appreciated his dogged efforts to get a straight answer out of the candidates about whether they're backing the bailout. And it was good to see him encouraging the duo to engage each other. After the Blitzer/Matthews disasters, Lehrer acquited himself well; he was the only man on stage that I liked more after the debate than before it.