As your humble correspondent noted earlier today, one needs to have some training in reading liberal tea leaves in order to determine which candidate actually wins presidential debates. In the case of this Newsweek article, written by associate editor Andrew Romano, absolutely no such training is needed. The title flat out tells us: "McCain Won." However there is also one highly laughable caveat added on: "But Will It Matter?" First Romano tells us why he thinks McCain won (emphasis mine):
Tonight, John McCain was the more effective combatant.
There are two reasons why. The first is that he constantly--obsessively, really--spiked his responses with small but pointed jabs at Obama that unfailingly related to subjects he (McCain) wanted to talk about, whatever the original topic of discussion. This tactic had a dual effect. First, Obama couldn't help but take the bait; he must've said "that's not true," "let me correct the record" or "I just have to respond" a dozen times over the course of the evening. Second, Obama's defensiveness immediately shifted the conversation to McCain's home turf--where it remained, often for minutes at a time.
McCain's strategy was on display from the start. Fielding a question on the current fiscal crisis--not his best area--the senator delivered a flabby, unconvincing answer. But he swiftly segued to a criticism of earmarks and "out of control spending" in Washington--a pet issue that resonates as "reform" among voters--and slammed Obama for requesting $932 million for Illinois since arriving in the Senate (a stat he repeated three or four times). Of course, earmarks only represent $18 billion in spending--a tiny sum, as Obama pointed out. But the Democrat was still forced to rebut McCain's attack. Similarly, McCain deftly transformed a question about how the Wall Street bailout would affect the next president's priorities into an assault on Obama's tax plan and hefty spending proposals, both issues that (again) tend to favor the Republican. As a result, most of the economic portion of the debate--a half-hour or so that should've played to Obama's strengths--was spent on McCain's poll-tested terrain (earmarks, spending and tax cuts) instead of Obama's (the current economic crisis). McCain pulled the same trick on foreign policy, focusing the conversation on Obama's opposition to the surge and willingness to meet with unfriendly foreign leaders. Much of what the Illinois senator said on these subjects was smart. It's just that he was reduced to an essentially reactive posture, either defending himself or agreeing with McCain's more assertive remarks over and over again. (Obama muttered the phrases "John's right" or "I agree" about a dozen times tonight; the GOP quickly cut an Web ad.) Simply put, McCain was in control.
The second thing McCain had going for him was a sort of optimism. You'd think from the previous paragraph that the Arizonan was all negativity. But that wasn't the case. Obama wanted--understandably so--to tie McCain to the catastrophes of the last eight years; McCain wanted to pretend they'd never happened. Ironically enough, this turned out to be a rhetorical advantage for the Republican. Time and again, Obama would move to lay blame for a past failure--and McCain would pivot to a better future. On the economy, Obama looked back at a "failed policy" of "shred[ding] regulations and consumer protections"; McCain looked ahead to the spending he'd cut and the people he'd hold accountable as president. On Iraq, Obama focused on how we got in; McCain focused on how we'll get out. I'm not saying Obama was wrong on the issues. His criticism of the Bush Administration's incompetence was cogent, clear and largely correct. Nor am I suggesting that McCain didn't delve into the past; he was clearly at pains to list the places he's visited and the leaders he's known. What I am arguing is that while Obama blasted Bush, McCain looked past him. Coupled with his reliance on catchy anecdotes over bullet-pointed policy positions--"defying Reagan on the Lebanon deployment, the bracelet belonging to the mother of a dead soldier, the firing of Chris Cox, the bear DNA"--this post-Bush perspective may help McCain appeal to moderates, a group that's more interested in solving problems than engaging in the partisan blame game. It was probably a matter of necessity more than anything else. But he used it to his advantage.
Okay, so now that Romano states what we already know, that McCain won the debate, he goes on to claim that it doesn't really matter:
...The contours of the race and the climate in the country still favor Obama, who holds a small but consistent lead in recent polls. To remake the landscape, McCain would've had to score a knockout blow. He didn't come close. The question, then, is whether he can keep delivering such solid performances from now until Nov. 4--and whether even that will be enough.
Earth to Andrew Romano: Barack Obama pretty much delivered a knockout blow to himself by having to read the name on his bracelet in order to remember who it was. Oh, and does anybody out there happen to have a spare time machine so we can send Andrew back to 1980 in order to console Jimmy Carter over the fact that even though he just lost the presidential debate to Ronald Reagan, it didn't really matter?