Editorial: Debate shows few differences

From a political perspective, the big debate Friday night was probably a draw. Given that the electorate is nearly evenly divided on which candidate to choose, the debate results will only reinforce this indeterminate status quo.

Republican John McCain had better answers on the economy. But Democrat Barack Obama had better answers on foreign policy matters. Given that he held his own on Sen. McCain’s foreign-policy turf, Sen. Obama might have helped himself the most, but we’ll leave that for Gallup to decide.

The debate was useful in that viewers got to hear the two senators talk and squabble for a total of 90 minutes. Moderator Jim Lehrer did heroic work trying to steer the candidates away from pre-rehearsed mini-stump speeches and toward giving real answers to direct questions. It was trying work at first, but as the subject headed into foreign affairs, the two candidates fought it out in a direct and occasionally feisty manner. There were not great gotcha lines, but a fair number of little tweaks.

Unfortunately, the two candidates’ positions on key issues are not dramatically different, which reinforces our libertarian take — that both parties are separate wings of the same bird. California editorial writer Alan Bock captured it in a Friday night post: “What’s fascinating is that both of these guys have no hint of a question of the notion that the United States is supposed to run the world. … They have only minor differences as to which countries and which perceived threats are more important and how they are to be handled.”

During the debate, McCain touted his wisdom in calling for the surge — the increase in troop levels that is credited for reducing the violence in Iraq. But Obama had a good retort: “The first question is whether we should have gone into this war in the first place.” Obama essentially argued that while it’s good to have shifted strategy, it would have been even better to have chosen the right strategy in the first place.

On economic matters, McCain was right to focus on the importance of cutting government, although when he called for a freeze in government spending, he exempted defense, veterans and entitlements. Once you take those areas off the table, there’s not much of significance left to cut.

Obama didn’t talk about cutting government, and even talked about expanding it. He successfully zinged McCain for the Bush administration’s massive expansion of government. But even McCain admitted that GOP reps came to Washington to change it, but let Washington change them. Both men were supportive of the $700 billion corporate bailout, and neither one was eager to talk about it.

From our perspective, there wasn’t much to cheer. Both candidates accept an enormous role of government. They differ mainly on the details. Neither candidate talked about significantly limiting government (although McCain came closest when he rightly criticized Obama’s health-care plan), about upholding constitutional rights or embracing a more restrained foreign policy.

Maybe that’s why the public is having such a hard time knowing which one of these big-government guys to choose.