In my initial reaction last night, I wrote that while I thought the debate was basically a draw, that amounted to a narrow win for Obama since foreign policy is supposed to be John McCain’s forte. Now, after half a day, with more time to think about it and the benefit of seeing initial polling data and surveying other people’s reactions, I’m only confirmed in that view.
In fact, I think it was a much bigger win for Obama than I was ready to figure last night. And that’s for two basic reasons.
First, the pattern in the 2000 and 2004 presidential debates was essentially this: the Democrat generally won each debate on points and even in the snap polls of undecided voters. But there was usually some remark or bit of affect that — ludicrous or not — right-wing commentators and yakkers fixed in on and were able to parlay into the dominating conversation of the next few days. In this way, strong debate performances turned into weak debate performances.
I’m not seeing anything like that this time. Mainly that’s because Obama just didn’t make any mistakes. But I suspect it’s also because there’s now more meta-media parity between right and left.
Second was McCain’s attitude. Whether it was contempt or condescension or some sort of fear or inability to — in the most literal sense — face Obama, it made McCain look small and angry. I apologize that I can’t link to them because I don’t remember who wrote it. But as someone wrote after the debate, for that kind of attitude to have ‘worked’ for McCain, Obama needed to come off as completely ignorant and unprepared. And I don’t think even his harshest critics believe that is what happened. Roll it all together and Obama just seemed like a bigger person than McCain. And in a race in which the issue agenda and party identification already work strongly in Obama’s favor, that’s an advantage that is very hard for McCain to give up.
I know that many Obama supporters are disappointed that he passed on various opportunities to deliver a smackdown that McCain couldn’t recover from. But having watched the guy for 18 months now, for better and worse, that’s not who he is. What he did do though is stand on the stage with McCain for 90 minutes on what’s supposed to be McCain’s terrain. He had an easy command of the issues. And he didn’t get rattled by any of McCain’s attacks. For all those reasons, I think he had a much better night than McCain.