Obama’s biggest advantage, even bigger than all that no-strings Internet money, is that the policies he advocates are far more appealing than McCain’s. A face-to-face, man-to-man debate, unsullied by preening moderators determined to prove their toughness and boost ratings, would almost have to focus on policy.
It’s true that Obama has been just O.K. in most of the Democratic debates, especially compared with his performance in set speeches. But that probably reflects (a) the lack of serious ideological and policy differences on the Democratic side and (b) Obama’s relative reluctance to go for broke in intraparty debates, which tend to focus on marginalia and in which one candidate’s “victory” sometimes comes at the expense of his or her party’s ultimate prospects. By contrast, the legitimate differences between Obama and McCain are vast. Their debates will be zero-sum games. Obama will no longer have any reason to hold back. On every issue, he has a case to make. McCain doesn’t. Plus, he’ll be somewhat hobbled by having to defend policies he doesn’t really believe in (such as extending Bush’s tax cuts for the superrich), doesn’t really care or know much about (such as his announced proposals for health care), or hasn’t had to defend against serious opposing arguments (such as Iraq).