Trading Places

One presidential candidate began the debate denouncing "greed and excess on Wall Street." He promised hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in subsidies to keep mortgage deadbeats in their houses. He denounced a Republican president, Herbert Hoover, and endorsed a proposal by a Democrat, Senator Hillary Clinton, to revive a big-government proposal by another Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt. He differed with President Bush on climate change, the war in Iraq, and torture. He expressed pride in "fighting the pharmaceutical companies" and bragged that his running mate "faced down the oil companies." He called for school nutrition programs to fight childhood obesity. He promised, "I'll provide available and affordable health care for you and your employees."

That was the Republican, John McCain.

Another candidate boasted that he wanted to cut taxes. He denounced China and Saudi Arabia. He spoke of support for "tort reform" against the opposition of trial lawyers. He backed charter schools and performance-based pay for teachers over the opposition of teachers' unions. This candidate said, "I believe in free trade" and expressed support for a free trade agreement between American and Peru. This candidate answered a question about the federal role in education by saying parents need to show responsibility by turning off television and taking away video games.

That was the Democrat, Barack Obama.

Sure, there were portions of the debate where the candidates took more traditional positions. But Obama sounded more like an optimistic, pro-growth maverick tonight than did McCain. Generically, most Americans would probably prefer a candidate who takes on the trial lawyers and teachers' unions than one who attacks Wall Street, oil companies, and drug companies—which are a good segment of the job-providing, innovative American economy, after all. American free-market capitalism is at a moment when it needs defenders, and one of the tragedies of this campaign is that McCain, for all his Vietnam-era heroism, just isn't that strong a combatant in the war of ideas.

Check out other opinions on the debate from The Daily Beast team.