Peggy Noonan raises a few intriguing points. First, the Rick Warren forum came, as she says, just as most voters were tuning in. The takeaway was stark and simple. She writes:
This is what it looked like by the end of the night: Mr. McCain, normal. Mr. Obama, not normal. You’ve seen this discussed elsewhere. Mr. McCain was direct and clear, Mr. Obama both more careful and more scattered. But on abortion in particular, Mr. McCain seemed old-time conservative, which is something we all understand, whether we like such a stance or not, and Mr. Obama seemed either radical or dodgy. He wouldn’t vote to ban partial-birth abortions because we must contemplate a rigorous legal parsing of any and all possible implications regarding emanations and of the viability of Roe v. Wade?
Most politicians are not particularly “normal.” But there is a level of intellectual abstraction and emotional distance which exaggerates the problem of seeming “not normal” for Obama. He doesn’t seem like the guy in the thick of things who makes the tough calls, gets roughed up, dishes it out, and comes back to make a deal. By being so far above the fray he conveys not that he is “cool,” but that he is aloof, unemotional, and uncommitted.
Noonan also puts the conventions is perspective. Obama’s speech will be good and uplifting (although the McCain camp has done an extraordinary job of blunting the impact by implanting the Britney Spears ad in everyone’s brain). But as he often does, McCain could surprise the pundits and thereby have the most impact. She explains:
He’s the one with the real opportunity, because no one expects anything. He’s never been especially good at making speeches. (The number of men who’ve made it to the top of the GOP who don’t particularly like making speeches, both Bushes and Mr. McCain, is astonishing, and at odds with the presumed requirements of the media age. The first Bush saw speeches as show biz, part of the weary requirement of leadership, and the second’s approach reflects a sense that words, though interesting, were not his friend.) But Mr. McCain provided, in 2004, one of the most exciting and certainly the most charged moment of the Republican Convention, when he looked up at Michael Moore in the press stands and said, “Our choice wasn’t between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war, it was between war and a greater threat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. . . . And certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker who would have us believe that Saddam’s Iraq was an oasis of peace.” It blew the roof off. And the smile he gave Mr. Moore was one of pure, delighted malice. When Mr. McCain comes to play, he comes to play.
And that is the common thread here: McCain has come to play and Obama thinks — or thought — he already won. McCain has been a fighter his entire life, sometimes to his own detriment and to the dismay of his party. Obama, who climbed from job to job almost effortlessly through much of his career, no doubt believed his greatest triumph was unseating the Clintons. But they did much of the work for him. He failed to appreciate that he had never met an adversary so undaunted by odds as McCain.
So if the race is down to the academic who literally is already planning his transition and the pugnacious, prickly guy (who didn’t give up when there was more at stake for him than an election), the voters might just choose the one who seems like he’s not above duking it out and putting himself on the line.