I'm a young guy. I probably saw at least some of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole's debates in 1996, but don't remember it. The only Presidential debates I have to compare tonights to are the previous to, and those two had obvious problems. George W. Bush isn't a very good debater, but he's a tough person to be in an argument with. I'm sure everyone has sparred with people like that. They won't make many points, but they'll sure distract you from making yours. The level of discourse in those debates was pretty bad, and none of the candidates involved showed themselves very well in my mind.
So it isn't saying much to say that tonight's debate was the best-looking Presidential debate I've seen. Campaigns are highly controlled and scripted, and anything surprising coming out in a debate would be considered a mistake for either debater. Other than McCain's spending freeze comment, which Obama effectively dismissed, I didn't hear anything new, and I don't follow the minutiae of political campaigns (I'd lose my mind). The spending freeze comment wasn't unpredictable, even, given his view that the way government spends money is a moral issue (a lot could be said about this, but not here). Both candidates kept to the script and neither pushed the other. So with no new material and no attempts at debates of substance there were plenty of attacks. Plenty of attempts to take previous statements out of context or to portray an opponent's position as unreasonable, unwise, dangerous.
The thing that made this debate stand up over the last couple rounds of them is that both of these candidates can deliver a zinger without smirking. Both can and do make attacks without dwelling on them excessively, and they don't take risks by improvising attacks. They punch but keep their gloves on and their hands up. Early on McCain twice referred to the "fiscal" crisis; the subtext is that it's a mere issue of balance keeping, the result of isolated mistakes and not of systemic problems. That's a phrasing that a more aggressive candidate might have attacked specifically (I can see Gore or Kerry dwelling on something like that), but Obama went back to the old "fundamentally sound" comment and didn't connect it to the language he'd just heard. As a result they cover a lot of ground, even if it is ground well-covered. At the very least, I don't think anyone's threatening to move to Canada over the idea of either of these two holding the presidency.
So, of course, the next debate is between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. I don't expect either to be so cautious or so civil. Palin just held her first mini-press conference yesterday, and didn't go beyond some really general statements about 9/11 (to be fair, she was outside ground-zero and asked questions about it). The worst case is that she'll debate like Bush, with hefty doses of obstruction and pettiness. The best case is probably that she's being coached to debate like Bush, but is sharper. Either way, I don't see Biden responding to such tactics with the plodding sobriety of Kerry or Gore. Mud will fly. I'm bringing popcorn and beer.