John McCain delivered platitudes about forcing accountability ...
... and Barack Obama spoke in generalities about protecting taxpayers. But neither offered any clear analysis or insight on the bailout.
For those who like boxing metaphors to score debates, here's the most frightening one to come out of Friday night's fight: Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain laid a glove on the financial meltdown.
That both men are trying, Muhammad Ali style, to dance like a butterfly around the crisis reveals neither has come to grips with the severity and its implications for the next President. After they delivered their platitudes about protecting taxpayers (Obama) and forcing accountability (McCain), their wells ran dry of ideas.
With the daily headlines filled with warnings of another Great Depression, we really do have something to fear: that our next President isn't up to the job.
Obama and McCain railed vaguely against outdated regulations, but the same might be said of their campaigns. The world one of them will inherit has changed since they started running nearly two years ago, only they don't seem to get it. Maybe the next bank failure will wake them up.
Then again, maybe not. The collapse of Washington Mutual happened hours before their first debate, yet it rated nary a word. It was the largest bank failure in American history. Ho-hum.
The disconnect is startling. Neither candidate would commit to voting for or against the proposed $700 billion bailout that could be finalized today. Nor could they talk about it with any plain-English detail. Do they even understand it?
McCain, who correctly said Wednesday the bailout discussions were more important than the debate, changed his mind Friday and never explained why. Perhaps the complexity of the issue and the lack of a risk-free political path convinced him the debate was actually safer turf than taking a stance on the largest government intervention ever.
Polls show that only about one-third of Americans support the bailout, yet the men vying to be responsible for it ducked the chance to explain to a huge TV audience why it is good or bad and what might happen next. They stuck to the tired refrain that the plan is more about saving Main Street than Wall Street, a Madison Avenue slogan as bloodless as it is outdated.
Moderator Jim Lehrer's prodding to detail how the crisis would reshape their economic plans was fruitless. Asked what they would cut in response to the new realities, the candidates fell back on promises crafted in the relatively flush times of last year.
They have their talking points and they're sticking to them, facts be damned.
In biographical terms, Obama and McCain are unconventional candidates. But with a few exceptions - Internet fund-raising and made-for-YouTube ads - they are running utterly conventional campaigns.
They promise to be different, but I'm increasingly getting the creepy feeling that more of the same is what we're in for, no matter who wins. The national landscape has changed in the blink of an eye, but the candidates are on autopilot.
We're also getting a good lesson about why no senator since JFK has been elected President. The stereotype about Washington being the problem has more than a kernel of truth. Insiders navigate arcane procedures, busily scoring inside-baseball points while giving lip service to the global forces scaring the bejesus out of 300 million Americans.
It's telling that Obama and McCain both deferred to congressional leaders of their parties during the summit with President Bush on Thursday. Instead of seizing the chance to set the agenda, they handed the baton to the people who either created or ignored the crisis while it was happening.
Come to think of it, that description also fits the two men who want to be President.