26 September 2008

One to McCain

Some of you won't like this. Many may flat out disagree. But I'm giving the point last night to McCain. He was smug, dishonest, and disrespectful, but he didn't make any major gaffes. Viewers who tuned in to see the wild and senseless maverick who's been stealing headlines since Wednesday were disappointed. They wanted a deciding moment on stage, and McCain didn't give it to them. He wasn't hot headed in his retorts, impulsive in his speech, reckless in his arguments or obviously old in his rationalizations. He was, merely, political.

And this, for McCain, given events of the week, was huge. McCain did not appear the monster that this week has led some of us to strongly believe lurks behind that sinister visage. He avoided having to explain his campaign actions this week, which is a good thing for him. He was not forced to take a position on the bailout that might push him into an uncomfortable corner next week. He was not made to answer questions about Fannie and Freddie, which is a missed opportunity, I think, for Obama, because there's an unmistakable sense that McCain isn't being honest about his advisor's role. McCain didn't have to talk about whether Sarah Palin is qualified; indeed, I was glad Obama did not bring her name up, though a question from Lehrer could have been interesting, if slightly tangential. John McCain was not pushed to revisit his role as one of the infamous Keating Five, and I begin to wonder if there is some mandate in Obamaland not to mention that faraway scandal, or simply a desire to hold on to that one, a silver bullet for the final stretch.

Perhaps most importantly, McCain did not give unhappy or undecided Republican voters a reason not to vote for him. Undecideds who want to vote Republican and have been waiting for the debates probably saw a Republican they could vote for last night, even if they have to hold their noses. Rather than show up as the diabolical arch villain he's been perceived as this week, McCain simply showed up as a driven and calculating man of ambition. In other words, human.

Obama, I believe, delivered a very steady debate. He didn't offer the soaring oratory that fires up his base, but he articulated a number of very salient points. He appeared the gentleman at every turn, perhaps to a fault. The American people don't want a president who turns to the moderator and says "May I?" We want a president who says, "You know what, John? Look at me now. You've just told that lie again and I'm gonna call you on it. You don't get to tell shameless lies about [insert bald-faced debate lie here: raising taxes on $42K a year, "failure" in Iraq, presidential face-to-face with Ahmadinijad]. Not uncontested, and not while I'm right here in the room." Obama didn't dazzle us with his grasp of foreign policy or his glib smiles to the moderator when his opponent got away with a quick one. He effectively parried, but he did not get in a single incontestable zinger. Rather than appear as the sublime politician, he simply showed up as a driven and calculating man of ambition. In other words, human.

Obama didn't scare any undecideds off last night, but I'm not inclined to believe he won any over, either. Probably, the undecideds who want to vote Democratic this year saw a candidate they could vote for, though based on the debate itself they must wonder what all the fuss, all the Obamamania is about. A handful of folks around the country heard talking points from each candidate, I'm sure, that appealed to a niche interest. So both candidates maybe picked up offsetting gains.

Both candidates came of as politicians. Nothing more, nothing less. For John McCain that's a good thing. He managed not to betray the surly underbelly of his avaricious character on national TV. For Barack Obama, to appear merely political reveals a certain dulling of the chrome. On the issues, Obama mastered his information fairly well. He was comfortable on the numbers and generally sound on the delivery. But he didn't say anything new, and he didn't come of as The Answer. Of course, undecided voters--and that's really who the debate is for--haven't been swayed by Obama's cult of personality, so maybe last night's constraint is not perceived as a negative.

The one thing I'll give Obama, and this could be bigger than I recognize from where I sit, is that of the two, he spent more time looking more presidential on stage. He looked at his opponent, appeared to listen to his opponent, and made repeated efforts to directly engage his opponent. If John McCain looked at Barack Obama a single time last night, I missed it. And that just comes of as lame, unbecoming of a presidential hopeful.

To step back and evaluate the campaign in terms of the debate alone, I'd say John McCain's people have to be fairly pleased. Their campaign, they've stated openly, is not about the issues but about character. To that end their candidate probably succeeded in softening the dings he took last week and this week, probably added a point back to the polls over the next few days. Obama didn't do anything terribly badly last night, but he also did not do anything exceptionally well. His campaign is based on the issues, but it is also based on the perception of a candidate who is different, who embodies change, who is an exception in his field. And we did not see that candidate last night.

Last night wasn't the performance that will push McCain over the top or cause Obama's popularity to stumble. I predict that Obama's numbers will stay fairly even, and the polls will tighten slightly for McCain if he doesn't do anything palpably ridiculous in the coming week. Is the bar higher for Obama than McCain? Undoubtedly. Is that fair? No. Does fairness matter? No. Has Obama set his own bar exceptionally high? Yes. And that's part of the appeal, and part of the risk. From the 1,000 mile view, McCain didn't look that bad and Obama didn't look that good. That's why I'll call last night's debate a thin victory for McCain.