When it came time to promote new generals, Napoleon would consult with his military aides. They would brief the emperor on the education and experience of those seeking elevation in the ranks. "Yes, yes," Napoleon would reply, "But is he lucky?"
Barack Obama is lucky. His opponent John McCain gave his best performance in any of their three debates, and it wasn’t even the headline in this morning’s Washington Post. "Stocks Sink as Gloom Seizes Wall St." read the banner headline at the top of the page. Below it, in letters several font sizes smaller: "A Hard-Hitting Final Round."
To make matters worse, McCain’s best performance came after most people had already made up their minds, which changes the whole nature of debate-watching. Many formerly undecided voters were not making discriminating judgments about the candidates: They were rooting for their candidate. In the immediate post debate poll conducted by CNN, 58% of viewers said Obama won to a mere 31% who thought McCain had won. CBS polled only uncommitted voters, and they scored the debate for Obama by a margin of 52% to 22% for McCain and 25% scoring it a tie.
Obama was flat for the first thirty minutes of the debate, put on the defensive by McCain on the subject of taxes, an issue with surprising resonance for independent, undecided voters. Their discussion of the economy showed the differences in their plans and the differences in their temperaments, and it should have been an opportunity for Obama to hit a home run. He did not.
McCain chief problem was not his answers but his facial expressions, especially his forced smile. As Eve Fairbanks observed at TNR, his smile "makes him look like a pleased kid who managed to recite the right lines to the teacher, even though he didn’t know what they meant – ‘Look, Mom, I did good!’" At other times, he seemed barely able to contain his disgust at being forced to compete with a first-term Senator whom he clearly has come to disdain. That happens in a campaign: Because the contest is a zero-sum game, and the choice is a binary one, it takes a great deal of moral awareness to keep from falling into a Manichean view of your opponent. Your opponent and his or her campaign stand in the way of your candidate’s dreams, for the nation and for themselves. The opponent is easily demonized.
Unless, of course, you are Barack Obama who seems incapable of demonizing anybody. His performance appeared flat to me and many other commentators, but others saw a calm presence in the middle of the twin storms of the last month of the campaign and the first month of an economic crisis. If people were looking for a candidate who would become a reassuring presence in the White House, their choice was easy.
So, the debates are done. The polls are likely to tighten as the undecided voters return to their usual voting patterns. Most of those who voted for Bush in 2004 but are undecided today will end up voting for McCain and Kerry’s supporters who haven’t made up their minds will break for Obama. But, the trend lines in the state polls are all with Obama. The wind is at his back. Napoleon would promote him.
Michael Sean Winters