The other spin line being dropped tonight is that Obama, by not losing, won because foreign policy is not his issue; he had to look like a credible commander-in-chief and he succeeded. Obama did not hurt himself during this debate, it’s true, though I think it’s grading on a curve to say he looked like the credible C-in-C.
But it seems to me, based on what has actually been happening in this country over the past 96 hours, the only person who was really at risk in this debate was McCain. Since he said he wouldn’t leave Washington until there was a bailout deal, and then he did, and since his presence on Thursday itself became a controversial subject, a bad night for him — especially on the economy — might have been fatal. Instead, he put on a credible performance on the economy, and a powerful and commanding one on foreign policy.
The McCain on stage tonight is the McCain we’ve seen since the summer of 2007 — a candidate who seems able to draw on reserves of energy and focus just at those moments when he seems to have lost his footing and might be about to tumble off a cliff. In this respect, doing well in this debate was actually far more important for McCain than it was for Obama; his campaign was on the line, and Obama’s wasn’t.
In that respect, the existential respect, McCain really was the winner, because he lives to fight another day.