A blistering economic crisis may be the all-encompassing issue of the moment.
But the war in Iraq still defines the difference between John McCain and Barack Obama.
McCain remains the true believer in that occupation, the man who really
does want to carry it forward until some ill-defined "victory" is
obtained - even if that takes a hundred years.
Obama remains the doubter who -- as he went out of his way to note
in Friday night's first debate between the two men who would be
president -- spoke out against launching the war six years ago and
remains committed to drawing it down.
These were the bottom lines of a debate that could have been all
about economics but that ultimately ended up being a very serious, and
at times very edgy, discourse about war and peace.
McCain called Iraq "the central issue of our time."
At the very least, it was the central issue of the debate.
The Republican said his Democratic rival "just doesn't understand" the importance of staying the course in the Middle East.
Obama argued that McCain lacks "the broader strategic vision"
necessary to make the United States a functional player on the global
stage - and at home. And he suggested that the Republican's misread of
the Iraq question all the way back in 2002, as well as McCain's ongoing
refusal to recognize his error, confirmed his opponent's deficiency.
"The fundamental question is whether we should have gone into Iraq in the first place," Obama declared.
"If the question is who is the best equipped as the next president
to make good decisions about how we use our military," the Democrat
continued, "then I think we can take a look at our judgment."
McCain, who constantly tried to suggest that Obama was naïve, argued
that, "The next president of the United States will not have to address
the issue of whether or not we should have gone into Iraq."
"The issue is when we leave and how we leave," said the Republican.
McCain was right about that, as was evidenced by a poignant clash
between the candidates over the meaning of the bracelets they wear to
honor soldiers killed in the conflict.
McCain said he wore a memorial bracelet - given to him by the mother
of a soldier in New Hampshire -- to remind himself that deaths would be
in vain if the war was not seen through to "victory."
Rejecting the notion that any soldier's death should be seen as
having been in vain, Obama said he wore a memorial bracelet - given to
him by the mother of a soldier in Wisconsin - to remind himself of the
need to bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion in order to save more
mothers from having to bury their sons and daughters.
McCain and Obama did not disagree on every international issue. Both
men offered indications that they buy into much of the current
consensus in Washington with regard to foreign policy -- a consensus
that agrees on bloated defense budgets and over-the-top rhetoric
especially with regard to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
But rarely in modern years has a presidential debate exposed so many
clear distinctions on global concerns - about Iraq, Iran and the value
of diplomacy - and this is what made Friday night's clash memorable.
Not to mention surprising.
Debate moderator Jim Lehrer opened the first of three debates
between the two contenders with a little bit of lip service to the
agreed-upon area of discussion: foreign policy. But the moderator
acknowledged that they met at the close of a week of wrangling over
failed banks and bailouts with a declaration that any discussion of
international affairs in a moment of domestic economic turmoil "by
definition includes the global financial crisis."
Lehrer really did try to get an economic debate going.
More than a half hour passed before anyone mentioned Iraq or Afghanistan.
The discussion turned to infrastructure renewal and extending access
to the internet before it did to China, Russia, India, Georgia, Israel,
Palestine or other global hotspot.
Again and again, Lehrer steered the discussion to the financial crisis.
That was appropriate.
But Lehrer didn't have much luck getting either McCain or Obama to
scope out visions for domestic economic regeneration, let alone the
interplay of the U.S. economy and that of the world.
The moderator tried, repeatedly, to get the candidates to identify
ways in which the economic crisis was going to influence how they would
govern. But the candidates kept dancing around the questions. McCain
was against "unnecessary and wasteful spending." Obama told McCain that
"your president" (George Bush) had presided over "an orgy of spending"
that, he noted, the Republican nominee has usually supported.
McCain toyed openly with the notion of a spending freeze but, when
pressed, refused to formally propose one. Obama acknowledged that the
cost of a Wall Street bailout might make it tougher to launch new
domestic initiatives, but as Lehrer noted the senator from Illinois did
not seem to be willing to abandon any of those initiatives.
Finally, 33 minutes into the discourse, Obama suggested that he would
be more inclined to steers some funds be out of Iraq and back toward
Obama only devoted a few seconds to the notion before steering back to the domestic debate, however.
It was not until almost half way into the debate that Lehrer actually asked the "Iraq" question.
Then, finally, the candidates diverged.
Recalling his own opposition to the war, Obama rapped McCain for getting everything about the run-up to the war wrong.
"At the time when the war started, you said it was quick and easy.
You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were," said
Obama. "You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as
liberators. You were wrong."
McCain said Obama is getting it wrong now. "Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge that we are winning in Iraq," announced McCain.
"That's not true, that's not true," countered Obama.
Repeatedly, the candidates clashed.
And they clearly did disagree.
John McCain debated as the man who wanted this war six years ago and who wants it to continue even now.
Barack Obama debated as the man who won the Democratic nomination in
large part because he had the wisdom to oppose launching an unnecessary
preemptive war, and who scored points throughout the primary fight by
promising to renew America's commitment to diplomacy.
The two men were speaking to a country that is rightly worried about a stumbling economy.
But the country worries, as well, about foreign-policy stumbles.
And the invasion and occupation of Iraq remains the worst of those stumbles in recent American history.
There will be plenty of spin about what was said in the first presidential debate.
But the focus on the war in Iraq, a war that most Americans think was a
mistake and want to see finished, means that -- while the night saw no
knockout blows -- it was Obama who got the debate he wanted and needed.