I am a bit out of step with much of the commentary on last night’s debate. I thought Barack Obama made a stronger outing than John McCain. Senator McCain scored some points and at times came across as passionate and aggressive — but also, at times, as angry, testy, and tightly coiled. Sometimes his intensity was jarring and his explanations came across as a bit disjointed; he made arguments that you could follow only if you were already quite familiar with them. He would open a potentially useful line of argument, but it seemed to me he wasn’t able to close it very well.
Obama, on the other hand, was what he has always been: cool, unflappable, an excellent counter-puncher, and quite good at making his case and explaining matters. He has an impressive, orderly mind. And his equanimity and temperament are among the most striking features of this entire campaign, and among Obama’s greatest political gifts. His countenance continues to act as a shied against (legitimate) charges that he is a person who holds fairly radical liberal views.
In terms of sheer political talent, Obama is among the best candidates we have seen during the last half-century; he ranks, in my estimation, with JFK, Reagan, and Clinton. At times one could feel McCain’s frustration at his inability to land a direct shot against Obama; it reminds me in some respects of the frustration Republicans felt when doing political battle against President Clinton.
Still, last night’s debate might prove helpful to McCain in this respect: he set up taxes as a central issue in which to frame the final 19 days of the campaign. If Senator McCain focuses on taxes and sharpens the contrast with Obama, he has a chance to gain some ground. Senator McCain also needs to engage Senator Obama more directly, and more effectively, on the class-warfare nature of Obama’s tax argument.
It’s true that John McCain has never provided the country with a compelling economic vision and an overarching, easily accessible governing philosophy. That may be because McCain himself is a man animated not so much by ideas as a sense of “honor politics” and causes that catch his attention. Senator McCain is a man of unquestionable bravery and considerable talents, and the fact that as recently as mid-September he was tied with Senator Obama in the polls is remarkable, given the tremendous headwinds he has faced this year.
Unfortunately for Senator McCain, his limitations are being exposed at precisely the moment when they are costing him the most.