Tonight’s debate was a bit boring.

In spite of being billed, “The Foreign Policy Debate,” the first 40 minutes concerned the economy.

Obama went first, answering a question on the current economic crisis and the financial bailout. Obama stated that this current crisis is the final verdict on the McCain supported policies of the Bush administration. Right out of the shoot, Obama seemed a bit programmatic and stiff, in search of his rhythm.

McCain responded by dodging Obama’s attack and emphasizing the need for bipartisanship to solve the problem. McCain was at ease and confident.

Luckily for Obama, McCain’s temperament advantage amounted to nothing, because both candidates did very poorly talking about the economy. Obama never really succeeded in connecting McCain to Bush or answering McCain’s charges of liberalism. And McCain talked too much about earmarks and corruption (he even repeated his awful line that I scorned earlier this year).

There were two interesting exchanges during the economics portion. Lehrer asked Obama to speak directly to McCain, and McCain asked, “Do you think I can’t hear him?” It was pretty funny. Later, Lehrer asked what the candidates would cut. McCain (at long last) sounded decisive proposing a spending freeze.

Forty minutes later, things really got interesting. McCain started responding to Obama’s criticisms, and there were some interesting exchanges.

McCain’s best moment was when he pushed hard on Iran. McCain criticized Obama’s statement that Obama would personally meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama fired back stating (a) that he’d never said he’d meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and (b) that Henry Kissinger (McCain’s own advisor) said it was a good idea to personally meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This was, I believe, Obama’s best answer. McCain’s response effectively negated its impact, by convincingly pointing out that both of Obama’s points are false (Kissinger has already posted his response to Obama).

Obama’s weakest moment was his response to McCain’s charge that Obama failed to hold a single oversight hearing on NATO, visit Iraq for 900 days, or consult with General Patreus. McCain ended by saying that even Biden thought Obama was naïve on foreign policy. Obama responded simply by saying (something to the effect), “I’m very proud of my Vice Presidential candidate.”

Obama had too many week moments to enumerate here without giving a complete blow-by-blow. He called the troop surge “a tactic” when it is a strategy, allowing McCain to take a nice shot, “Senator Obama doesn’t know the difference between a tactic and a strategy.” Obama struggled to qualify his statement that he’d invade Pakistan after McCain called him to task by saying, “You just don’t say stuff like that out loud.”

Obama’s best moment was when he criticized McCain for saying that the Iraq war would be over quickly, that they knew where weapons of mass destruction were, and that the US would be greeted as liberators.

So who won? I’m a Republican, and I score it this way: McCain: A. Obama: C. I’m willing to be fairly committal about this, because I’m positive that nothing I say about this matters. The way Democrats see it, their guy did fantastic, too. That’s not spin. They really think that.

Most pundits, on the other hand, hedge their bets. “Pretty even.” “Neither candidate scored a knockout.” “Nothing decisive.” “Slight advantage McCain.” “Slight advantage Obama.” These are weasel words. Trust me: In 4 more years, they’ll show out-takes of the “decisive” moments in this debate and talk about how key they were in the election, as though it was obvious to everyone.

Here’s what happens: The campaigns have a life of their own, and after someone wins the election, a narrative forms around what went right and what went wrong. The debates are part of this narrative, and they get defined entirely after the fact.

I wrote an editorial on Presidential debates in September 2004, back when Bush was debating Kerry. In it, I said this:

Look at history: Gore looked silly and evasive in the face of Bush’s simple stalwart answers that won over the heartland. Clinton made Bush’s father look aloof and out of touch. Dukakis looked cold next to a more human George H. W. Bush. President Reagan established his firm grip on the issues with a single one liner about age in his second debate with Mondale. Well I watched every one of these Presidential debates, and I don’t remember anyone saying anything like this at the time…

To hear the media describe it [here in Massachusetts], [Senator John] Kerry dramatically came from behind to beat [Governor] William Weld [for US Senate] in 1996 because of [Kerry's] masterful performance in eight debates. I saw these debates, and I distinctly remember two things about them. First, Weld manhandled Kerry in each of them. Second, nobody in the press was willing to say anything committal about who won. In the end, Kerry, an incumbent democrat, barely defeated his republican challenger in a state that Bill Clinton won by more than 33%. And as soon as the debates faded from memory, they magically transformed into a key factor that put Kerry over the top against Weld.

So there you have it. We all have our own opinions, but we won’t know who won the debates until after we get the election results on November 4. Only then will a cohesive mythology congeal about the debates.