First impressions

FIRST IMPRESSIONS…. I don’t doubt that the media will obsess quite a bit tonight and tomorrow over the talk about Ayers and ACORN, which I suppose made the debate slightly more “newsworthy” than the first two Obama/McCain match-ups. But as far as I could tell, there wasn’t much there to move the proverbial needle. McCain’s attack was relatively incoherent — in effect, “Ayers doesn’t matter, but let’s talk about why Ayers matters” — and Obama’s response was thorough. It’s hard to imagine anyone, anywhere, finding this compelling.

In a more general sense, if tonight was McCain’s big “last chance” for a game-changing performance, it was a missed opportunity. Opinions will no doubt vary widely, but I thought this was the worst of McCain’s three debate performances. On the substance, McCain had nothing new to offer. On his demeanor, McCain seemed angry and dismissive (did anyone count how many eye-rolls we saw?). On rhetoric, he was clumsy and repetitious.

What’s more, McCain positioned himself as a far-right Republican at precisely the time Americans want to move away from far-right Republicans. How did McCain present himself to Americans? As an anti-abortion, pro-voucher conservative who wants to slash federal spending and talk about how mean television ads and t-shirts hurt his feelings.

Obama has cornered the market on stature, temperament, and control. Where McCain was nasty, Obama was unflappable. Where McCain was angry, Obama was confident. On the substance, Obama was on message, and just as importantly, made personal connections on the issues he cared about.

I also noticed that Obama seemed to go out of his way to appeal to centrists and independents. While McCain reached out to his base on abortion and vouchers, Obama sought out middle ground on practically every issue.

In the first debate, it seemed to me that Obama won on points. In the second, Obama won by taking control. Tonight, Obama practically won by default — McCain had an off night when he needed a big win. Watching the two, it seemed to me that Obama is ready to lead, and just out-classed his over-matched rival.

I’ll have more in the morning. What’d you think?

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.