Before I add my own two cents about the debate, I have to come clean and confess that I only watched the last half of the debate.  While I may not be able to give you my impression of the overall debate, I can still weigh in with my thoughts on what I did see.

This debate seemed to me to be much more substantial than the first presidential debate.  That being said, I still don’t think that there was a great deal of substance from either candidate.  You are not likely to ever hear a politician give you a straight answer especially when their goal is to gain the support of such a diverse electorate as ours.  They have to be careful not to speak in absolute terms but rather in ambiguous terms designed essentially to avoid offending people.

That being said, it’s easy to see why Obama has gained the support he has.  While he has not actually articulated the details of his vision, he is attempting to elevate some moral positions to the status of being absolute: health care is a right, dialogue with our enemies is the right thing to do, paying our fair share of the taxes is a burden we must share together, people who have more are obligated to pay more because they have more, etc.  Our country is hungry for a return to moral absolutes that were abandoned over the course of the last century and Obama is providing a framework for (re)defining what those absolutes are.  Only his absolutes aren’t shared by everyone so, his vision of what is true necessarily involves the government (and those that work in the government) because the only way he can establish the absolutes if elected is by coercion on a massive scale only possible through legislation and judicial compliance.

I didn’t hear anything in Obama’s remarks that changed from any of his previously stated positions.  In fact, he has a remarkable gift for always circling back to the core principles of his campaign platform of hope and change.  His comments about health care were a little unnerving.  If you like your current health care coverage, you can keep it.  We just want to provide a premium coverage for everyone who doesn’t have health care insurance.  Wow!  Who would want to stay with their current coverage when the government is going to guarantee a premium coverage?  It sounds good in a speech to offer the kind of health care coverage that U.S. senators enjoy, but what are the costs (especially long term)?

McCain was also ambivalent in most answers and stuck with his theme of being fundamentally different from Barack Obama without really explaining how that fundamental difference would translate into concrete policies.  When he did come close to offering a more concrete example of how he is different from his opponent he failed to see his example through to its conclusion.

That said, I think McCain had more to offer in last night’s debate in terms of what his administration would actually do if elected.  Specifically in terms of foreign policy but also in the realm of health care.  Obama basically asks us to trust him when he promises us all health care and the he will work out the details once he’s elected.  McCain gives us some things to consider and is working on convincing the voters that his plan has merit (he needs to work harder if he’s going to counter the pie-in-the-sky plans of Obama).

I think the strongest point McCain made in the debate last night (the part that I saw, at least) was when he argued that America is the greatest force for good in our world.  He stumbled a bit after he said it the first time, which tells me he is still worried about appealing to the undecided voters, but his first iteration of the phrase was strong and resolute.  He does not possess the oration skills that Obama does, but he does have a vision of America that is at least as appealing as Obama’s, if not more so.

My overall impression of the debate was that Obama continues to promise the sky in a dazzling and meserizing fashion while asking us to trust him on how he’ll get us there.  McCain is struggling to beat Obama at his game of rhetoric but has a more practical message of individual responsibility that could have broad appeal if he could only find a way to sell it to a broader audience.