Now come the debates. In a squalid election, they are the parentheses wherein we may actually focus on substance—along with the dubious task, a virtual dogma, according to conventional wisdom—of deciding which candidate we’d prefer to have a beer with. (Nixon in 1968? Or any year for that matter?)
Ironically, the topic for the first debate, which will be joined just as the real world of the economy has wiped the lipstick off the campaign, is foreign policy and national security. This is McCain’s foxhole, the last redoubt of his supposed strength. For as Frum has argued, there’s always that commander-in-chief question.
The real irony is that it was the Obama forces that gave McCain the chance to find temporary sanctuary there. They negotiated to move the first debate from domestic to international issues. McCain now has something of a breakwater from the economic questions where he seems constantly, dangerously at sea.
In the end, however, Obama’s calculation may let the Democrat have it both ways. On Friday, he’ll tie the nation’s economic difficulties to the trillion-dollar mistake in Iraq that McCain championed. He'll amplify the discussion on the economy by reversing JFK's tactic in the first debate on domestic issues in 1960. Kennedy wanted to bring in foreign affairs; he did it by arguing that we can't be strong abroad if we're weak at home. When Obama takes a similar tact, the mind’s eye of every viewer will see the trillion dollar financial meltdown and McCain’s sputtering response to it.
In addition, the debate’s unprecedented format, which allows blocks of time for in-depth discussion, gives Obama a once-in-a-campaign chance to prove that he’s equal or superior to McCain on foreign policy. If that happens—and I believe it will—the last post-Palin shred of the experience argument will evaporate in 90 minutes. Americans will conclude Obama is up to the challenge of dealing with a dangerous world.
Obama doesn’t have to overtake McCain on national security; he just has to pass the threshold, as Kennedy did against Nixon. Nixon ran on the slogan “Experience Counts.” But it wasn’t a binary question. And when he more than stood up to Nixon in that first debate, Kennedy made Nixon’s argument all but irrelevant. It should help Obama that, as a debater, McCain is no Nixon, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
By this time next week, the Democratic nominee will not only hold the commanding heights of the economy; he may well have blocked off the slippery slope of national security as McCain’s escape route to the White House.
There is, of course, one other road open to McCain—the low road. McCain can further plunge into the squalor of lies and stereotypes about Obama as “not one of us,” as “the other,” as somehow un-American. The steepest descents—charges about Obama’s faith, invocations of his race, insinuations about his “radicalism”—will conveniently spew from swamps of smear on the far right.
If Obama prevails in debate Friday, watch the Republican spin as it moves to the low ground, disdaining substance to charge that Obama was “cocky” or “disrespectful,” or seizing on some pretext—no matter how small—to claim he played the race card. It’s a tried trick; remember, Al Gore sighed in 2000 and that’s all the Bush surrogates could talk about. This time, the spinners will traffic in code words.
In the end, this election will be more than a contest of policy or even personality; it will become a test of America’s character. We’ll pass it, I predict—not least because the stakes are so high, the economy so precarious, America’s standing in the world so fragile that this time, the country can’t afford to indulge the politics of falsehood and fear. In 2008, the low road will be a dead end.