Sure, John McCain attacked more sharply and persistently on Wednesday night than in either of the first two presidential debates, repeatedly asserting that Barack Obama will strangle ordinary Americans with new taxes, fees and red tape and charging that his eloquence masks a pattern of spineless shiftiness. And sure, McCain also took a few shots at Obama’s “relationship” with Bill Ayers, answering his opponent’s – and the media’s – challenge to address the subject to Obama’s face. And sure, Obama played a passive role for much of the debate, deflecting McCain’s attacks instead of advancing his own agenda.
None of that matters.
McCain showed up at Hofstra University in an almost impossible situation, trailing by nearly 10 points in most national polls (more than that in a few) amid a national economic crisis that has reinforced swing voters’ strong desire to be rid of the Republican Party for the next few years. It was said after the first two debates that a tie wasn’t good enough for McCain, since he entered them lagging in the polls. On Wednesday, it’s doubtful that even a win would have been very helpful to him, given the steep deficit he faced and the limited time remaining in the race.
Not that we’ll ever know for sure, because McCain didn’t even get a win in the debate. The reason has a lot to do with image. McCain may have showed new aggression and focus, but he still looked old and still seemed tense with contempt and anger (especially in split-screen shots while Obama was speaking). And when he began airing his grievances about Obama’s television ads and campaign surrogates, he seemed petty and bitter.
In each of these areas, Obama’s bearing contrasted favorably with McCain’s. He was cool and vigorous, calmly but firmly answering McCain’s attacks while showing no outward peevishness. He also smiled. And when McCain began griping about the tone of Obama’s campaign, Obama – after first noting that McCain’s running mate had said nothing when supporters at her rally shouted “Kill him!” at the mention of Obama’s name – recognized exactly how most casual viewers were reacting to the discussion.
“I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings in the course of a campaign than in our addressing the issues that matter to them deeply,” he said.
McCain’s problem was apparent over and over: His attacks, even when coherent, got him nowhere.
Throughout the night, he accused Obama of favoring irresponsibly expensive programs that would necessitate tax and fee increases on small business owners. He also derided Obama’s call for tax hikes on upper-income Americans as economic suicide (“Why would you want to increase anyone’s taxes right now – anyone’s?” ) and tried to play gotcha with Obama’s Senate voting record, accusing him of voting to increase the taxes of people making $42,000 a year.
But Obama largely defused whatever impact this assault might have had with steady and calm and reasonable-sounding replies that surely left most undecided voters saying: “What’s the big deal here?”
“There’s a lot of stuff that was put up there, so let me address it,” Obama began after one McCain barrage.
His replies were measured and reasoned, but sounded plenty wonkish, particularly when he walked viewers through the details of his health care plan. He also showed some targeted humor, like when he said of McCain’s charge about his supposed Senate vote to raise taxes: “Even Fox News disputed it, and that doesn’t happen very often when it comes to accusations against me.”
But like with McCain, Obama’s words weren’t nearly as important as how he delivered them – and how he looked when his opponent was speaking. In many ways, Obama is not a natural debater. He doesn’t like to raise his voice, isn’t an instinctive counter-puncher and lacks a showman’s instinct for creating drama when it can be effective. Based strictly on the meaningless hack-pundit point-count system, Obama lost.
Points only matter in debate competitions in high school and college. It counts for much more than Obama has an immensely likable manner (the most likable, probably, since Bill Clinton) that puts most voters at ease and makes them instinctively receptive to him. At the same time, McCain’s tense, agitated manner and his age have the opposite effect. He can be very loose and funny in some settings, but not on a debate stage.
It’s a truism that people will see what they want to see. So it really doesn’t matter that McCain raised so many questions about Obama and his plans. Something about the way he did it – and the way Obama responded – told most viewers that the attacks didn’t really add up to anything. So McCain got nothing out of the debate – something that snap polls released about 30 minutes after the debate were already starting to confirm.
John McCain lost the third and final debate and Barack Obama won it. Neither one of them could help it.