Obama breezed right past it and concisely crushed the McCain health care plan. But if "that one!" doesn't go down as "the moment" of the night, then there really is no use whatsoever for a media that only notices superficial flaws in the candidates' performances.
Instant verdict: a no-score draw. Boring and dull and platitudinous. No heavy punches landed. The format scarcely helped. In fact it helped snuff out any threat of life or spark or conflict or, damn it, interest. And so, because of that, Obama, leading in the polls, won.
Gut read. Obama owned it. This election’s over unless he murders and eats the flesh of a child on live television.
From a horse-race perspective, John McCain came in behind and losing ground, in the middle of a financial/economic panic that works against him, and therefore needing a big win. This meant either damaging and flummoxing Obama, or so outshining him in audience rapport, mastery of policy, and empathetic connection through the camera, that the debate could be presented as a turning point. None of that happened. (McCain's best performance was at the end, rejecting a "Yes/No" question on whether Russia is an "evil empire.") At this stage in the race, a tie goes to leader, and this was not a tie.
I think it's very much to Obama's advantage that he and McCain are freed from their podiums, roaming the stage. For one thing, this calls attention to Obama's height advantage. Obama is also just more fluid.
The questioners were mostly props, the format, negotiated by both campaigns, was terrible, and there weren't any memorable moments. CW says that John McCain had a 90 minute window to turn his campaign around - to put into play the McCain Resurgence Strategy, if you will, and if that's the CW threshold, I don't think McCain met it. With the exception of "That One," McCain seemed less irritable, although his jokes seemed hokey and fell flat - they don't work when no one laughs.
There was really nothing here that we hadn’t heard before, though Obama came up with a wittier way of making his basic point about Iraq. On some level, it’s not so surprising that we didn’t hear anything incredibly new. On another level, it’s extremely surprising to me, tactically, that McCain didn’t try to do something new. Instead, McCain took the same talking points (earmarks bad, tax cuts good, earmarks very bad) that have seen him fall behind and decided to repeat them with less energy. I would be shocked if this exchange gained any ground for McCain and not at all surprised if he just continues to slip.
My guess is that most Americans will pick Senator Obama as the winner of this debate. On substance neither of the candidates said much of anything new. The issues at play still favor the Democrats. And on style John McCain mumbled through his answers a lot more than in past performances. As a viewer this wasn’t a very fun debate to watch. How can I connect with a candidate who doesn’t wink at me?
One thing that’s clear from this debate is how little there is to John McCain and his campaign. He’s running on a few, vague issues tax cuts, an aggressive response to Russia in specific and terrorism in general, something about energy and a whole lot of non-policy fluff: America’s inherent strength and goodness, Obama’s inexperience, scorn for Washington insiders. But mostly, he’s running on a platform anchored by a single assumption: that John McCain is inherently, singularly qualified to lead the country, and, subsequently, deserving of the office of president. McCain views the White House as something to which he is unequivocally entitled. Beyond that, nothing else matters. Indeed, if you hold this view, nothing else would.
What's the bottom line? McCain performed well, I think, subject to some concern that he may have come across as pretty old. Obama showed, in the first debate and again tonight, that he too can come across well under pressure. He's no longer stammering and indecisive as he once was on the stump. On the whole, he's a plausible rogue and I suspect that he passed muster with most people who aren't knowledgeable about the issues. McCain did fine, but I don't think anything happened that will significantly affect the momentum of the campaign.
The big story of the night: Obama and McCain both do debates differently than they do public rhetoric. Of course, McCain’s rhetoric is far sleazier than Obama’s. And Obama’s is far more dizzying than McCain’s. Take your pick. Obama’s is more worrying, but McCain’s is more disgusting. Awesome.
Bill Kristol points out that the reason you have a town hall debate is to introduce an element of unconventionality and shake things up. Nearly every question brokaw selected was political Secconal. He's right. Fred Barnes is in agreement and notes that so far the questions asked at a church by Rick Warren were more illuminating than any of the journalist moderated debates since then.
It should be noted that this debate, coming at the height of election mudslinging, was admirable issue- and policy-oriented. Doubtless, that makes for a bunch of “dud” reviews, but it’s also probably a welcome change for a lot of us. And credit where it’s due: Tom Brokaw was excellent.
The takeaway from this debate may be that it will prevent Obama from running away with the election; McCain put in a performance strong enough to keep the floor from falling out under him.
Tonight was supposed to be John McCain's night, but it was the first clear debate win Obama has scored over the course of this campaign -- including the primary. McCain, as it turned out, was badly disadvantaged by the format. The debate was more physical than previous encounters. The candidates were mobile, as were the cameras. And McCain, for reasons of age and injuries and height, has a less commanding physical presence than Obama.
Nothing McCain did tonight changed a thing. He's done. This race is now the 2008 version of Clinton vs. Dole. And you know how well that turned out for the Republicans.
The silver lining: Obama and the Democrats are going to own this godawful mess. And the conservative movement can clear the deadwood out of the way, and start to rebuild itself into a credible force.
(Photo: Jim Watson/Getty.)