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Commentary By Max Schulz

Failure to Communicate

Drudge called it "B-O-R-I-N-G." Mark Steyn was even more brutal, labeling last night's presidential debate a "horrible travesty" for the excruciating tedium created by the event's artificiality. Given the dreariness generated by the two candidates and moderator Tom Brokaw, last evening's showdown was a travesty for any viewer who stuck it out to the bitter end.

But it was also a travesty for John McCain, who needed to do something to right the listing ship that is his campaign. Unfortunately for the former Navy man, his vessel's wounds were self-inflicted. His debate performance did nothing to salvage his bid for the White House. If there is any upside for McCain from last night, it lies in the hope that the affair was so mind-numbingly dull that any self-respecting viewer not being paid to tune in was doing something else.

Forget McCain's answers on the financial crisis (not very good), health care (hardly better), or foreign policy (much better—but, by then, who was watching?). His real problem is that he badly flubbed his chance to score points on the one issue that has captivated voters' attention all year: energy. Time and again last evening, McCain was inarticulate, unfocused, and seemingly unaware of most Americans' real concerns on energy and the economy.

In a debate dominated early on by economic issues, McCain never managed to describe his energy agenda as the vote-grabbing pocketbook issue that it undoubtedly is. The sky-high gasoline prices Americans paid all summer were effectively an energy tax, brought to us by policies limiting energy production supported chiefly by Democrats like Nancy Pelosi.

But you wouldn't have known it listening to McCain. To the extent he spoke of high prices, he decried the wealth transfer of petrodollars to the unsavory regimes in places like the Middle East. Fair enough, and one would hope those considerations would be on any president's mind. But that's not what has gotten consumers so upset as the price of oil rose to $150 per barrel and gasoline flirted with $5 per gallon earlier this year. If there was ever a visceral, kitchen-table issue in this election, it's high gas prices. McCain managed to put it at a remove, relegating it to the arcana of foreign affairs and international diplomacy. Citing a figure like the annual overseas transfer of $700 billion means little in the current environment. It's an abstraction, hardly different from $500 billion or $900 billion, whereas the difference between $2.50 and $3.50 per gallon of gasoline when filling up is all the difference in the world.

Barack Obama, too, talked up the foreign-policy considerations of dependence on foreign oil. Yet he also made sure to empathize with families for whom $3.80 gas strains the budget. The irony that Senator Obama's party shoulders much of the responsibility for those high prices was not even hinted at by Senator McCain.

McCain similarly squandered an opportunity to clarify his differences from Obama on nuclear power. It wasn't for lack of trying. But McCain so garbled his sentiments on nuclear energy that one couldn’t tell what he was saying. The facts are these: Both candidates claim to support nuclear power, but McCain actually seems to mean it. He supports opening the Yucca Mountain waste repository, a critical step in guaranteeing the expansion of nuclear energy.

Obama, meanwhile, vows to shut down Yucca, though provides no alternatives. He's trying to have it both ways. He can say he supports nuclear, as do increasing numbers of Americans. But he sends an unmistakable signal to the anti-nuclear environmental lobby that, without Yucca Mountain, nuclear power isn’t going to expand on his watch. McCain tried to spit something out on this point, but tripped over his tongue in an answer about climate change. All of which brings to mind the famous line from Cool Hand Luke, starring the recently deceased Paul Newman (himself a proponent of nuclear power): "What we have here is failure to communicate." Indeed.

Any doubts about who would win the energy portion of last night's debate were erased when the candidates were asked to identify the highest immediate priority that would face the next president. Was it energy, health care, or social security? McCain answered first, and equivocated. All are critical, he said. You've got to handle each. They're all equal. With his answer, meanwhile, Obama showed why at this late date he is the favorite to win come Election Day. Without any hesitation, Obama stated that we have to prioritize and that energy tops the list. (The fact that Obama said in the first debate that energy would be the first item on his agenda he’d abandon will no doubt be tossed down the memory hole by his cheerleaders in the mainstream media.)

McCain clawed his way back into the race this summer by riding the wave of outrage over the offshore-drilling ban. He further helped his cause by picking a running mate from one of the most important energy-producing states in the Union. How ironic that he is giving back those gains by failing to appreciate that the 2008 contest will go down as the Energy Election.

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online