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Why McCain Lost (The Debate, That Is)

It feels somewhat irrelevant given how quickly economic events seem to be overtaking the campaign, but here's a quick final thought on last Friday's debate, and why the great and good American people (at least judging by the polls to date) emphatically disagreed with my conviction that McCain came out on top. I saw the debate as an evening in which the policy differences between the two men were muted, and McCain was able to steer the conversation around, again and again, to his experience and record, which on paper is easily his biggest advantage over Obama. If this election were being decided on the candidates' resumes alone, independent of ideological considerations or the state of the country, McCain would win in a walk, and so a debate in which he kept Obama on the defensive and flaunted his experience at every turn seemed, to me at least, like a best-case scenario for the McCain campaign.

Obviously, though, that's not how the public saw it. I think Nate Silver's point, about McCain's advantage being confined to a set of issues that voters just don't care that much about at the moment, does a lot of explanatory work here, but I also think I underestimated the dynamic that Ambinder and Fallows have gestured at: Namely, the extent to which the average independent voter really, really wants to vote for Barack Obama, which in effect makes these debates about Obama's performance, rather than McCain's. Thus it's not enough for the GOP nominee to advertise his own virtues, as McCain did relatively successfully last Friday; he needs to sow deep, deep doubts about Obama, and ideally goad the Democratic nominee into saying or doing something that saps the public's confidence in his preparedness or competence. That didn't happen: On points, McCain may have won a lot of the exchanges, and I still think his attacks on Obama were stronger than Obama's attacks on him, but nothing he dinged his opponent on - from pork-barrel spending to meeting with Ahmadinejad to being slow to come around to the same position as McCain on Russia's invasion of Georgia - was big enough or immediate enough to undercut the basic respectability of Obama's performance, and the air of moderation, caution and sanity he projected. If the two men had gone into the debate on equal footing, I suspect my read on the evening would have been on the money (he said, defensively). But they didn't, and it wasn't: Obama needed to seem like a reasonable man and plausible President, and McCain needed to make Obama seem like a neophyte, and incompetent, and/or a lefty radical, and only one of the two of them got the job done.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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