In 1984, I was one of the questioners at the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. Reagan had a comfortable lead at the time. But he had a terrible night, often groping for details. He seemed hesitant and unsure, and gave a barely credible answer to my question about why he didn’t go to church. Afterwards, when we shook hands, Reagan looked stricken.
Mondale gave a dazzling performance, and the expectation in the media was that the presidential race had suddenly become competitive. It hadn’t. Reagan steadied himself in the second debate and won re-election in a 49-state landslide.
I drew a simple lesson from this episode: As important as they are, debates can’t change the fundamentals of a presidential campaign. Reagan was popular, his foreign policy was strong, and the economy was booming.
This lesson now applies to John McCain. He performed ably last Friday in the first debate with Barack Obama. But he shouldn’t expect to gain much ground from that or from the next two presidential debates, even if he outscores Obama again.
The fundamentals of the race remain. And while they aren’t nearly as daunting as those faced by Mondale in 1984, they certainly favour Obama. The economy is weak. The president is unpopular. It’s a change, not a status quo, election. The surge has worked, but the war in Iraq is hardly a campaign plus. The political cycle points to a Democratic takeover. Democratic voter registration is up. Republican registration is down. Republicans trail Democrats in party identification.
All of these factors put a drag on McCain’s bid to win the White House. But the largest drag is the crisis in financial markets that erupted six weeks before election day. As the crisis has lingered, Obama’s lead over McCain has grown almost daily in polls.
Amazingly for a first-time presidential candidate, Obama has made no big mistakes, only a few small ones that turned out to be inconsequential.
Obama committed a few errors — he misquoted Henry Kissinger on Iran, for one. And he couldn’t match McCain’s firm grasp of national security issues. But if he caused many voters to conclude he’s unqualified to be commander-in-chief, I’d be surprised.
The next two debates may be easier for Obama and tougher for McCain. When the overarching issue is who’d be the best commander-in-chief, as it was in the first debate, McCain prevails. This issue always matters in presidential contests, but the 2008 race isn’t primarily a commander-in-chief election. It’s a domestic policy election.
As luck would have it, McCain had plenty of opportunities to show his dexterity on economic issues in the first debate, since nearly half of it was devoted to the financial breakdown. He missed most of these opportunities. I was waiting for him to explain his role in assuring House Republicans a voice in the bailout negotiations, and why that was critically important. He never did.
Obama also gave McCain several openings. He cited McCain’s recent comment that the US’ economic fundamentals are strong. Instead of pointing out that the fundamentals — unemployment, interest rates, inflation — are indeed reasonably strong, just in jeopardy because of the financial crisis, McCain ignored the opportunity.
We’ll find out if either man is resourceful enough to exploit weaknesses, or wise enough to learn from their mistakes, as Reagan did. If not, that will be revealing all by itself.
The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and a Fox News Channel commentator. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org