The momentous occasion no one rose to.
The debate was both astonishing and utterly predictable. And it was astonishing precisely because it was so predictable.
Both of the candidates, as well as the moderator, Tom Brokaw, led off by observing that the nation, indeed the world, has been plunged into the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression. A monumental historic occasion!
But neither candidate rose to it. This is, to put it mildly, worrisome.
Obama and McCain did acknowledge that Americans are frightened. Both of them gestured to providing relief to ordinary Americans as well as to the financial elite that got us into this disaster. McCain said he would have the government assure the value of homeowners' real estate; Obama explained that we are in a credit crunch that could well have enormous repercussions. But that was about it —concerning the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression!
None of it reveals one iota about what Americans urgently want to know: what, exactly, is the mess we're in now and how can we get out of it?
Does either candidate have any idea about what steps the Federal Reserve Board ought to take now? Can either of them explain, concisely and in layman's language, exactly what the Congress just did, why he supported it, and where Congress ought to be headed? Who knows? Instead, we heard a rehash of what we've been hearing all year: standard liberal attacks on deregulation and regressive tax policies, and standard conservative attacks on tax hikes and government spending.
None of it reveals one iota about what Americans urgently want to know: what, exactly, is the mess we're in now and how can we get out of it? It might as well have been six months ago; for that matter, it might as well have been 1988. My guess is that, in the absence of a debate about the current crisis, Obama came off well, by saying what he has said before, saying it cogently, and winding up with an effective call for change. I don't think that the debate did anything to shift the dynamics of the campaign, which have moved in Obama's favor since the onset of the financial meltdown.
What's dispiriting is the prospect that neither candidate has what it takes to lead the country through the disaster that seems to be looming.
Sean Wilentz is a History Professor at Princeton University and author of The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008
For a look at how FDR handled his own banking crisis, read an excerpt from Harold Evan’s book, The American Century.