Heilemann: Obama Nails the Debate Trifecta

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Maybe the most annoying aspect of the coverage of presidential debates is the ceaseless, relentless application of sports metaphors to the proceedings. You’ve got your Hail Mary passes, your slam dunks, your knockout punches, your thrust and parry. But last night, as John McCain and Barack Obama concluded their third and final forensic engagement at around the same moment that the Philadelphia Phillies were putting away the L.A. Dodgers to advance to the World Series, I found it impossible, when asked my opinion of McCain’s performance, to resist a piece of baseball lingo: three strikes and you’re out.

Republican partisans will no doubt howl in protest at this judgment. They insist that last night was McCain’s best performance, that he was aggressive and on offense, that he scored solid hits on Obama (on taxes, in particular), that despite the hokeyness of the Joe-the-plumber trope, it was the kind of rhetorical gambit that would translate into a raft of second-day stories favorable to McCain. They further argue that Obama seemed flat and hypercautious, that he failed to drive a consistent message, that he appeared to be sitting on his lead, attempting to stall out the clock.

And all of that is true, as far it goes — which isn’t very far. For, once again, by every available objective measure, Obama thumped McCain. The post-debate insta-polls could hardly have been any clearer on the matter. The CBS survey of undecided voters found Obama coming out on top by a margin of 53–22; CNN’s effort put the spread at 58–31.

How is it possible that McCain could win more debating points while still losing the debate? One answer, suggested by NBC’s tireless political director, Chuck Todd, is that McCain chose to focus his attacks on issues that energize the Republican base, while Obama quietly played to the middle. Another is that McCain got off the best line of the night when he declared, “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush; if you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago” — but that it came far too late in the campaign to blunt Obama’s efforts to conjoin McCain and Bush at the pelvis.

But the more powerful answer is this: Presidential debates are not only — or even mainly — about substance. They’re about tone and affect and body language, and on all these counts, McCain was once again fairly awful. This time his awfulness was enhanced (or, rather, exacerbated) by the split-screen TV presentation. As Obama looked at him with preternatural calm, all smiles and nods and respectful glances and rueful shakes of the head, McCain twitched, smirked, glowered, smoldered, rolled his eyes. And when he opened his mouth, what came out was too often a tonal match for his facial expressions. He sneered at Obama, interrupted him constantly, mocked his eloquence. A Republican media savant with no small experience in presidential politics e-mailed me, “He’s Bob Dole morphed into Howard Beale from Network. I’ve had fistfights with guys who looked less angry. I don’t see how he gets on a commercial airline and passes security.”

McCain’s grumpy cum irascible cum splenetic countenance was nothing new, of course. It was a defining feature of the first two debates as well, much to his detriment. Indeed, after absorbing four and a half hours altogether of his visage opposite Obama, it occurred to me last night that McCain was this year’s Al Gore — a candidate whose stylistic tics overwhelmed all else in the collective judgment of his debate performances.

But McCain was even worse than Gore in one crucial respect: He gave off a vibe of profound and all-encompassing solipsism. In his complaints last night about Obama’s negative ads — complaints that have some validity, in that the Democrat’s campaign has in fact been more negative than many people believe, though nothing as incendiary as McCain’s — he came across as aggrieved, self-pitying, whiny, entitled. The unspoken sentiment behind his words and bearing was, “This fatuous, line-jumping, all-talk-no-action punk is about to take the job that was supposed to be mine! Can you believe this shit?!” The issues he incessantly chose to harp on — earmarks, ethanol, Colombian free trade — are, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic and pet-peevish. In other words, it’s all about him. The contrast with Obama, who throughout all three debates labored mightily to turn every disquisition back to the concerns of you, the voter, was nearly as unflattering as the one between Obama’s million-dollar smile and McCain’s dime-store grimace.

It’s interesting to contemplate whether Obama would have fared as well against a different kind of opponent: a younger, sunnier, highly composed, pretty-boy egghead — Mitt Romney, say. Maybe someone like that would have made it harder for Obama to stay in his zone and set up such a clear contrast of image and temperament. Instead, in McCain, he was blessed with his perfect foil. He walks away from the debates having nailed the trifecta — and quite possibly, the election.