If appearances alone decided the debate’s winner, then John McCain won. His energetic demeanor helped dampen concerns that he is too old for the job. Obama, on the other hand, did not come across as the candidate of cool. His expression alternated between a scowl and what Raymond Chandler called “that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream.”
But it’s not just about appearances. In the next few days, YouTubers and television news producers will be picking out the “defining moments” of the debate, those brief clips that largely determine what people remember about the faceoff. McCain will do well enough, since he had some good lines and memorable touches — especially his powerful closing.
He also had some awkward moments. His repeated insistence that he was not the Senate’s “Miss Congeniality” only reminded people that Sarah Palin literally was Alaska’s Miss Congeniality.
More important, he missed chances to score points on Obama. Here are a few: Early in the debate, Obama asked rhetorically: “The question, I think, that we have to ask ourselves is, how did we get into this situation in the first place?” Instead of talking abstractly about greed, McCain might have said: “Senator Obama wants to know how the trouble started. He might ask his close adviser Jim Johnson, who headed Fannie Mae and got an exorbitant pay package.”
Obama promised that we would deliver a tax cut to 95 percent of Americans. McCain could have said: “Senator Obama has made a lot of promises. In 2005, he promised that he wouldn’t run for president. In 2007, he promised that he would work aggressively to ensure public financing of the presidential campaign. In 2008, he promised to fire any staffer who attacked Governor Palin’s family. He broke all those promises. And now he promises to cut your taxes. Right.”
Obama claimed that he “stood up and opposed this war” when it was politically risky. McCain might have replied: “In 2002, Senator Obama said he was against the war. Two years later he said, ‘There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage.’ Then he went back to opposing it again. So he was against the war before he was for the war before he was against it. Senator Obama should compare notes with Senator Kerry.”
Obama listed a number of energy options, including “clean-coal technology.” That line was perhaps McCain’s greatest missed opportunity of the night. “It seems that the real debate here is between Senator Obama and his running mate,” McCain might have said. “A few days ago, Senator Biden said — and I quote — ` We’re not supporting clean coal.’”
“And by the way, Senator,” McCain could have added, “your running mate claimed that he was the first person to support solar energy 26 years ago. Actually, the first major legislation on solar energy came years before that, and Senator Biden had nothing to do with it. At least he didn’t claim that he was the inventor of solar energy. That was God.”
There are more debates to come. Perhaps McCain is holding some one-liners in reserve.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.