Debate analysis: Both men improve, McCain wins on points

The second presidential debate goes into the record books, and this time both men managed to stick closer to their game plans.  Barack Obama rid himself of the “John is right” tic that appeared in various forms almost a dozen times in the first debate.  John McCain gave a much more focused response on economic issues.  In the end — literally, in this case — McCain prevailed on his strength on foreign policy and national security.

Obama improved from the first debate.  He kept his voice even and didn’t get as rattled.  Last time, Obama’s voice kept pitching higher when McCain attacked him, and he spent most of the evening defending himself.  This time, Obama stuck to his own agenda, only getting flustered once after a McCain attack, and stumbling when Tom Brokaw shut him down, invoking the debate agreement between the two camps.

McCain also improved, most clearly in the economic debate.  This time he hammered Obama on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and challenged the assumption that “deregulation” caused the financial crisis.  He looked more confident and spoke more clearly on that subject, and didn’t get nearly as deep into populist blather as in the first debate.  On health care, he offered a strong endorsement of free-market principles and providing choice to consumers.  (In fact, I think both candidates did very well on health care, with Obama and McCain making the clearest pitches for their approaches than on any other subject.)

McCain did somewhat better on entitlement reform than Obama did.  Unfortunately, the question came as more of a follow-up than a separate topic, but McCain offered details and substantive proposals, while Obama talked about spending even more money on a series of new entitlements.  McCain also used that to underscore his credentials as a bipartisan agent of change, and noted that Obama has none at all.

Coming into the last 30 minutes, though, I thought the debate was more or less a draw.  That’s when Brokaw turned the debate to foreign policy and national security, and McCain simply outclassed Obama.  Despite the nearly two weeks between the debates, Obama still couldn’t offer a coherent policy on Russia.  He stuck to general themes, and more than once tried to invoke Iraq on completely unrelated topics.  McCain, on the other hand, had extensive knowledge of the subjects and gave detailed answers that demonstrated Obama’s superficial knowledge — to the point that Obama complained that McCain thought he was “green behind the ears”, a flub that will no doubt live in ridicule for the next couple of days.

Brokaw did a solid, professional job as moderator.  I didn’t think Brokaw would do poorly, and I failed to catch any obvious bias in his moderation.  I thought the town-hall format was a joke, though.  Brokaw and his team selected the questions ahead of time and chose the participants, and in the end it just looked like Brokaw had outsourced some of the moderator duties to guest voices.

McCain won, but he didn’t score a knockout by any stretch of the imagination.  Is this a game-changer?  I think not.  It may help narrow the gap a little, but I think the two men are pretty evenly matched in these debates.  I wouldn’t expect a knockout in the last debate, either.