1. Friday’s debate was one of the better presidential debates we’ve seen. Both Senators McCain and Obama did well. McCain was sharp and often on the offense, particularly when it came to national security issues. Concerns that he would come across as unprepared, haltering, or old didn’t materialize; in fact, he was the opposite. He was in many respects a commanding presence.
Senator Obama was more often on the defensive, but we saw what an effective counter-puncher he is. He is impossible to fluster and came across to many viewers as temperate, steady, and knowledgeable. As one McCain supporter I know wrote me in an e-mail, “I was reassured by Obama’s debate performance in some ways. I can easily imagine him as President.”
That impression is the most damaging one for McCain – and one he frankly doesn’t have a lot of control over. McCain did well in the debate; but so did Obama. And since the main task of Obama is to reassure the public that he’s not a risky choice, the debate helped him more than it helped McCain. And that is showing up in the polls, most of which show a small but significant boost for Obama.
2. The last few weeks have been quite damaging for McCain. For one thing, this period has acted as an unfortunate circuit breaker. Senator McCain came out of his convention with a blast, achieving the first real lead in the polls. That bounce was almost certainly artificial, but it was something to build on. What the crisis in the financial system did was to dramatically shift the election debate onto terrain that is more favorable to Obama.
What compounded the problem is that McCain’s actions during that period – when his early responses seemed all over the lot and later, when his gamble to temporarily halt his campaign and postpone the debate if no deal was reached didn’t work – have damaged him further. It also seemed to me that McCain’s criticism of SEC Chairman Christopher Cox was symptomatic of a larger failure, which was to explain to voters the key role Democrats played in blocking necessary reforms, backed by both McCain and President Bush, of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. This allowed the history of the crisis to be presented in a way that was very incomplete and far too generous to Democrats.
That McCain tried a game-changing tactic was bold and in some ways impressive. He appears to have played an important role in bringing House Republicans into the negotiations. Yet the acid test on these things is whether they work or not — and in this instance, given how things unfolded, the McCain campaign gambled and lost. As a top McCain aide told the Washington Post, “Thursday was a disaster. The vision on Wednesday did not play out as we thought.”
On Wednesday, when McCain announced his gambit, it appeared to many people as if it might work to his advantage (showing him as a forceful, decisive leader). Twenty-four hours later, having walked into a snare set by Democrats (who leaked word that a bail-out deal was imminent when it clearly was not, thereby making McCain look to be a disruptive force), things looked quite different. The McCain campaign was forced to engage in damage control and eventually back down from its declaration that they would not attend the debate absent a deal.
3. What helps a campaign immeasurably is when the charge it makes seems to fit the person against whom the charge is being made. So, for example, the Bush strategy in 2004 to make John Kerry appear to be a flip-flopper and haughty was aided by the fact that it played to a pre-existing (and largely accurate) view of Kerry.
The difficulty Senator Obama presents is that his demeanor and countenance seem to act as a shield against the charge that he is, in terms of his policies and political philosophy, quite liberal and on the extreme end of the political spectrum. Senator Obama’s voting record certainly shows that to be the case. But the way he carries himself — combined with his post-primary, head-snapping shifts in policy — are designed to make Obama appear as a centrist. I don’t for a moment believe he is; Obama’s political career, taken in its totality, makes him the most liberal presidential candidate since George McGovern. But Obama has shown himself to be a nimble candidate, against whom it is difficult to land clean blows.
In addition, Obama came across in the debate as mostly agreeable, repeatedly saying “I agree with John” on this or that. I think that was an effective tactic; it gave Obama the patina of being bipartisan and a man ever in search of common ground. In fact, Obama has complied, in the words of Joshua Muravchik, “one of the most partisan of all voting records.” But once again, his style and manner send a different signal.
Potentially, the most lethal political charge against Obama is that he is a deeply liberal/ideological figure who has associated with radical individuals in order to advance his political career. The question is whether Obama’s countenance and personal style make those charges seem far-fetched; or whether the McCain campaign can convince voters that Obama’s appeal is at its core fraudulent and his new-found centrism a mirage.
I have some sympathy with the task faced by Team McCain; telling a campaign what needs to be done is much easier than actually carrying it out. That’s why it would be useful for more commentators to actually have had some experience in governing and political campaigns, which tend to be more complicated and difficult than pontificating.
4. Adding to McCain’s problems is the altitude that Sarah Palin has lost. Her selection, and especially her nomination speech, electrified many conservatives, as well as independent women. She came across as a fresh new face, charming and anti-political, a very popular governor and a reformer. But for a variety of reasons, including cultural ones, the media turned on her and began a systematic effort to portray her in the worst possible light. It is undeniable that many members of the MSM took an instant dislike to her, or at least to what they took her to embody. And so they went after her with particular ferocity.
At the same time, we need to recognize that it’s perfectly legitimate to ask tough questions of Palin, and it’s perfectly appropriate to expect her to answer them in a way that is informed, fluent, and confident. She hasn’t always done that, particularly in her uneven interview with Charles Gibson and a worse one with CBS’s Katie Couric. It may be we’re seeing Palin in the midst of a learning curve; if so, it better be complete by Thursday night, when she debates Senator Biden (it should help Palin that Biden’s record is a target-rich environment, including in his supposed area of specialty, national security; see this op-ed I wrote in the Wall Street Journal).
It’s worth bearing in mind that in her brief political career, Palin has shown herself to be smart and tough, an effective communicator, and extremely popular with the voters of Alaska. And under enormous pressure, she delivered an excellent convention speech. Those are all important qualities for a political candidate, as is basic good judgment. Palin has the capacity to rise to the occasion. At the same time, it is easier to deliver a speech to an overwhelmingly supportive audience than it is to participate in a debate that may influence the outcome of a presidential election. A lot is on the line for both Palin and McCain on Thursday; she needs to shine.
5. The truth is that Senator McCain, facing a considerable uphill struggle, has made the race closer than it ought to be, given all the advantages Democrats have this year. And one thing this campaign has taught us is that a new dynamic can be injected in the blink of an eye. We still have five weeks before the election. But then again, we only have five weeks to go before the election. And the task Senator McCain faces is to alter, in some fundamental way, the trajectory of the race. Friday’s debate certainly didn’t do that; if anything, his job is now harder.
John McCain has faced far more difficult challenges in his life than he does now. But politically speaking, the race, never an easy one, looks considerably more difficult. Senator McCain can still prevail, but at this point, he may need an assist from outside events or from Barack Obama. And one thing Senator Obama has shown is that, for whatever flaws he has, he doesn’t make many glaring, stupid, and unforced errors. He’s hard to knock off stride. Obama and his team, while certainly not flawless, have run a very impressive campaign for 20 months. To hope they’ll badly slip up in the last five weeks is asking for a lot. As we’ve seen this year, a lot can happen, including in a short period of time. But for McCain it needs to happen, and soon.