Just to be up front - I didn't watch the debate. Instead I took a hot sauna in an 85 degree coffee shop all night. Fun!
As far as I can tell, I didn't miss too much. I feel like debates are one of those cultural touchstones we just have to have - what would we be, as a society, if we didn't arrange for the most contrived, least enlightening, least interesting series of forums designed to give us a view of the candidates as they never will be?
I said going in that I thought John McCain couldn't salvage his week. And apparently, he didn't. Despite a lot of positive reviews from pundits and reporters, Obama dominated post-debate polling, labeled the winner and winning over more of the voters he needs to win.
Watching the bits that are around on the web - and someone, really, should be embarrassed that there's not a direct, easy to find YouTube of the entire debate, without interruption - I was struck by McCain's inability to especially articulate a position. His attempts to sound "serious" leave him raspy and muttering (I think he has a breath control problem, myself), and he doesn't so much offer new ideas, as complain about old ones.
This is what the GOP has become.
For McCain to have overcome the effect of a disastrous week, I think he'd have needed to stake a claim, a position... something. The debacle of the bailout meeting needed clarity, it needed an idea. What was he for? What was he against?
Instead McCain more or less acknowledged that he planned to vote for the bailout as it finally wound up. The rest of the time, he mainly explained how someone - usually Obama, but occasionally others - just didn't get it, not the way McCain did. He knew how to handle Iran, he knew how to handle Russia. He knew Chris Cox shouldn't be heading the SEC... well now he knew that, anyway.
Obama, I think, is marked by what he doesn't "know" - he listens, takes things in, synthesizes. He's gotten better as a debater. What little I saw was far clearer, direct and concise than the rambling, often professorial exchanges he's offered in the past. He laid out plans, and terms and conditions. And he - gracefully - acknowledged, often, that McCain knew what he was talking about, even if they didn't agree.
We focus, of course, too much on "who won and who lost." It's our nature, as Americans to see these things in sports metaphors and beauty pageants. Competition, someone wins, someone loses. The reality is more complicated. Obama didn't win, McCain didn't lose. Not here, anyway. But Obama did better. He offered an idea, a notion of going somewhere from here, somewhere that wasn't where we've been already and that hasn't worked. McCain did litle of that. He didn't offer a place to go, he offered the idea that wherever Obama was going, it was the wrong place. Much is made of McCain's "foreign policy cred" (much of it, conveniently, just in time for this election), but I'm with Ezra: it's a stretch to call it cred.
McCain may have sat on the relevant committees and visited a lot of places, but he was never the "respected foreign policy voice of the GOP Senate" - that was Dick Lugar. McCain's vast foreign policy chops basically led him to say the Bush Administration was mostly right and he'd mostly continue their policies. That's not maverick, it's old and familiar and more of the same. And he did all this romancing of old ideas while attempting a folksy, just folks demeanor that doesn't suit. Obama didn't try the "just like us" line at all. He presented him as the nice man whose heard our concerns at the local meetings and plans to bring them back to the regional office. He's auditioning for a job, not for a position as your friend. And if experience is the issue... McCain clearly didn't take that into account while choosing Sarah Palin, who spent the week in what could only be seen
I suspect Americans want someone who'll do the job, too. And I suspect that the real undercurrent of this election, not to be discussed, is ageism, rather than sexism or racism. John McCain looked old, sounded old, even if it was a vigorous sort of old. And his ideas were, well, the old ideas. This, from a self described maverick ready to take on the entrenched interests.
Republicans like the attack, they like the sarcasm, even as they fail to unify around even one issue with common purpose. Winning has become the only unifier; that, and defeating the liberal enemy. And it's not just that Obama doesn't fit the bill, it's that the "liberal enemy" ... us ... has really had enough of the fight. Ths is silly. Let's end this.
I don't think McCain fits the bill of the "folksy Gramps" he tries to sell when he's not busy being all mad at someone for messing up, or not getting it. But even so, I think the more pointed thing is that America's decided "not Gramps" and as always, has decided out with the old, and in with the new. For McCain to transcend the dynamics - as he's failed, with greater spectacularity, to do anything about it over the past couple of weeks - he would need to seem younger, more vigorous, brimming with ideas and confidence. To see that, last night at Ole Miss, would have been quite a leap. I didn't think he had it in him. And, well... he didn't.