JOHN MCCAIN'S opening words last night were: "Senator Obama, it's good to be with you at a town hall meeting!" Indeed it was. We now know why Barack Obama declined McCain's invitation earlier this year to appear together in a series of 10 town hall meetings around the country. This is the format in which McCain excels, and he excelled last night. He was substantive, sympathetic, strong - sure of himself, his facts, and his convictions. On issue after issue, McCain sounded clear and mature. In a word, presidential.
Though most of the debate dealt with domestic issues, it was a foreign-policy question that sent me flying to my files. Moderator Tom Brokaw asked the candidates what their "doctrine" would be "in situations where there's a humanitarian crisis, but it does not affect our national security," such as "the Congo, where 4.5 million people have died since 1998," or Rwanda or Somalia.
In such cases, answered Obama, "we have moral issues at stake." Of course the United States must act to stop genocide, he said. "When genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening . . . and we stand idly by, that diminishes us."
But that wasn't how Obama sounded last year, when he was competing for the Democratic nomination and was unbending in his demand for an American retreat from Iraq. Back then, he dismissed fears that a US withdrawal would unleash a massive Iraqi bloodbath. "Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn't a good enough reason to keep US forces there," the AP reported on July 20, 2007 (my italics).
What kind of candidate is it whose moral response to genocide -- genocide -- can reverse itself 180 degrees in a matter of months? Is that the kind of candidate who ought to be the leader of the free world?
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.