McCain controlled the debate tonight. He came off as a brittle, grumpy, mean-spirited old coot, but on the economy — which should have been Obama’s strong suit — McCain managed to divert the conversation to tax cuts and kept Obama off the kitchen table issues where he excels. McCain was allowed to paint himself as a crusader for reform, and no mention was made of the Keating 5 — though Obama did manage to tie him to voting for all of Bush’s budgets. (McCain’s only rejoinder was to refer to himself repeatedly as "no Miss Congeniality." Huh?)
But the biggest problem for me was that McCain had a grab bag of adjectives he consistently used to characterize Obama — "naive, inexperienced" — and every time he repeated them, it was like money in the bank. He worked them in at every opportunity, and their cumulative effect wore into Obama as the evening went on. Obama missed the opportunity to do the same and characterize McCain as brittle, rash, impulsive and out-of-touch. His critiques were all over the place, and his failure to tie them together into a coherent narrative about McCain meant that he never really grazed the old buzzard.
The good news? Well, McCain sounded bitter and looked hunched over and mean. He wasn’t likeable, and most of the Monday morning quarterbacks on my teevee seemed to agree. Obama can definitely recover in the next debate — he didn’t have any kind of a major falter. And on the plus side, I’ve had the feeling that up until now, Obama reallly didn’t dislike the man — not the way he did Hillary Clinton anyway. But behind Obama’s superbly controlled mien tonight you could see that McCain’s patronizing tone and open distortions were really pissing him off.
The anger seemed to focus Obama. His "ums" and "uhs" stopped and he delivered his points with more conviction. Even if he doesn’t give it full expression, being a little hot under the collar suits him.
The idea that you can run against a Republican for national office and remain above the fray was a nice one, but it isn’t realistic. Obama needs to stop agreeing with McCain and reinforcing his message. It doesn’t make him look statesmanlike, it makes McCain look right.
McCain really has nowhere to go except to get more obdurate and bellicose. If Obama can get his footing in the next debate and decide on a tactic for getting under McCain’s skin, the cranky old hothead won’t be hard to pwn.