They both lost tonight. We can go back and forth about whether McCain's anecdotes were more intimate or whether Obama's jabs were snappier. But beyond stylistic differences in the personalities they project from behind the podium (McCain's the weary parent, Obama's the sharp young know-it-all), I thought they both conspired to bring us a narrow, defensive, small debate.

That surprised me, because McCain and Obama are two of the most exceptional political figures of their generations, so expansive in their own visions of what they represent. But you wouldn't have known that if you were, say, a Martian tuning in to this campaign for the first time. Neither of them really faced the bailout head-on, sharply differentiated themselves from the other, or (most disappointing of all) tried to offer a big argument or central narrative about what's wrong with the country. Sometimes, their positions even seemed to converge. The two of them reminded me of a bickering older couple that's lived in the same familiar space so long -- the campaign -- that they've stopped arguing about the big things (do we move? have a baby?) and are now litigating the color of the salt shakers.

The whole debate was weirdly imitative. You brag about your soldier's bracelet, I'll brag about my soldier's bracelet! Obama was more afflicted with this imitation disorder -- he called for giving Georgia and Ukraine NATO Membership Action Plans "immediately," a stance Sarah Palin was derided for taking in her interview with Charlie Gibson, and McCain has already released a post-debate ad featuring clips of Obama agreeing with the senator from Arizona. But what happened to the aggressive, hot McCain who loved to rib Ahmadinejad? McCain sounded awkward and reined-in on Iran, while on meeting sketchy heads of state -- a question on which McCain's and Obama's instincts seem naturally and sharply opposed -- the two men sounded as though they'd nearly converged (yes, you reach out; no, you don't get on a plane as soon as Kim Jong Il sends you a text message). "I'm not parsing words," said Obama. "He's parsing words, my friends," retorted McCain. "I'm using the same words your advisers used," huffed Obama.

He's parsing words, he isn't parsing words, let's call the whole thing off. The two guys fought all night in the weeds, tussling Talmudically over Henry Kissinger, the difference between a "strategy" and a "tactic," Obama's exact earmark request, and our official designation for the Republican Guard, without stepping back to explain what was really at stake in their differences of opinion. The debate's small-bore quality made me wonder if they'd prepped for it by watching Sarah Palin's horribly vague interview with Katie Couric, breaking out in a cold sweat, and vowing to drop as many figures as possible.

The discussion was often backward-looking, defensive, and record-oriented. Here's Obama: "Two years ago, I warned that, because of the subprime lending mess ... that we were potentially going to have a problem." And here's McCain: "I also warned about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac." And Obama: "Six years ago, I stood up and opposed this war." ... And McCain: "I stood up, and I voted against [Marines going into Lebanon]." (See, I told you this debate was imitative.) At one point, during a particularly excruciating McCain stemwinder on how nobly he's taken care of veterans, the friend I was watching the debate with -- a McCain fan -- wailed, "Oh, stop patting yourself on the back!"

Some back-patting is okay. I'd rather see a candidate run on his record than on empty promises. But neither McCain nor Obama succeeded in making the connection between what they have done and what they want to do during their hypothetical presidencies. Just what do they want to do, anyway? Eighty percent of Americans think their country is on the wrong track, but they're also unsure of why, exactly, the ship is so endangered, and how to right it. It's these candidates' job to suggest at least the beginnings of an answer. But tonight, they barely uttered their campaigns' basic mantras, "straight talk" and "change." Restricted by their need to appeal to a narrow slice of independents, they battled like two people trapped in a tight cell, tussling over whether $18 billion is a big or a small number.

When McCain momentarily tried out a grand theory of what ails the country and his argument for how he can help it heal, here was what came out: "Reform, prosperity, and peace, these are major challenges to America ...It's well known I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate nor with the administration."

Very inspiring. Because when I think of who I want at the helm during these treacherous times, it's Grouchy Smurf.

Maybe my expectations were too high. If so, then Obama won, by default. I wish both candidates had offered, as David Brooks put it, an "overarching argument" for their soon-to-be-non-hypothetical presidencies. But McCain was the guy who had to do that. One, he's behind. Two, his whole campaign has been based around game-changing, rules-breaking moves. To maintain consistency, he needed to break a little ground. He played it way too cautious, and way too dour. The country may be sick, but he looked like he was already holding the funeral. The candidates' joint failures of inspiration could be only McCain's undoing.

--Eve Fairbanks