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What If He’s This Good In The Debates?

Michael Gerson joined a parade of pundits who praised John McCain’s performance at the Rick Warren forum. Gerson dispelled one myth and raised an intriguing possibility.

The myth? That by appearing thoughtful and respectful toward religious right voters, Obama would win many of them over. Gerson explains why this will be near-impossible. He writes:

His outreach to evangelical voters is obviously sincere, but he doesn’t actually agree with them on much. In the course of the forum, he endorsed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in spite of the existence of humane and promising alternatives. He proposed controversial government regulations on faith-based charities that accept federal funds. He attacked Justice Clarence Thomas as unqualified and defended his vote against the confirmation of the widely admired Chief Justice John Roberts. Obama deserves points for honesty on all these issues, but it is possible to be honestly off-putting.

Obama’s response on abortion — the issue that remains his largest obstacle to evangelical support — bordered on a gaffe. Asked by Warren at what point in its development a baby gains “human rights,” Obama said that such determinations were “above my pay grade” — a silly answer to a sophisticated question. If Obama is genuinely unsure about this matter, he (and the law) should err in favor of protecting innocent life. If Obama believes that a baby in the womb lacks human rights, he should say so — pro-choice men and women must affirm (as many sincerely do) that developing life has a lesser status. Here the professor failed the test of logic.

For many evangelicals, the theoretical Obama — the Obama of hope and unity — is intriguing, even appealing. But this opinion is not likely to improve upon closer inspection of his policy views. Obama is one of those rare political figures who seems to grow smaller the closer we approach him. “I want people to know me well,” Obama said at the forum. Among religious conservatives, that may not be an advantage.

In other words, people whose lives are devoted to religious principles take those principles seriously enough not to support a candidate who opposes those same principles. They are not easily bamboozled.

But Gerson raises a more intriguing point: McCain may be really good in a debate setting. And that might be the key to a stunning political upset. He writes:

Republicans have spent the past few weeks pleasantly surprised at the closeness of the presidential race. But they have generally chalked this up to Obama’s weakness, not McCain’s strength. After Saturday night, even Republicans most skeptical of McCain must conclude: “Perhaps we aren’t doomed after all.”

It is not just that McCain is more fluent on issues. It is that a long stretch of time before the camera without a script (at least not a detailed one) benefits the candidate with more real life experience and more proficiency at drawing concrete examples. Debates, by and large, don’t consist of long, eloquent speeches. And concessions that issues are “hard” or above one’s “pay grade” may sound good in a short TV interview, but they stick out in a debate as evasive and unsatisfying. (And getting peeved at pesky questions as Obama did in the Philadelphia debate or in the David Brody interview is a potential disaster when the entire electorate is looking on.)

All that said, I find it hard to believe that Obama won’t learn from this outing and be more impressive in the fall debates than he was Saturday. Because McCain has shown himself to be capable of conveying that he is not only up to the job, but a more credible leader and more compelling person, Obama had better do some intense preparation for those debates. Unless Obama is honest with himself about the shortcomings of his performance, Saturday night may prove to be not just a fluke but the beginning of the Obama mystique’s unraveling.



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