It’s a dangerous road, but we have no choice. If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose.
-McCain campaign aide, on the campaign's choice of focusing on negative campaigning rather than the economy.
If you ever needed proof of that assessment, you only need to look at the second presidential debate. It's bad news for McCain, since the economy hasn't just become the top issue in people's minds, but the only issue.
McCain, whose negative campaigning was largely -- but not entirely -- missing last night, seemed to have lacked the courage to do his "let's all hate Obama" schtick in front of anything other than an entirely friendly audience. No William Ayers, no Rev. Wright, no claim that Obama wants to kill babies and teach sex ed in kindergarten. Maybe McCain is ashamed of his own campaign and tried to hide it from the audience last night. Here I thought that Baghdad Johnny had sold so far out that he was beyond shame. I thought he'd entered into the Bushian version of enlightenment, where shame and conscience are shed the way a Zen master sheds material attachments. Maybe there's still a shred of decency left in John McCain.
Then again, he probably calculated that it wouldn't work in that hall -- not that it's working anywhere else. If McCain's campaign has decided they can't win if the conversation's about the economy, then they're quickly learning that they can't win by ignoring it either. McCain's losing that argument badly.
I have to admit that when I watch these debates, I'm pretty damned short on predicting how the polling will turn out. Last night, I figured that McCain would do fairly well -- not a winner by any measure -- but better than his previous performance. I called it totally wrong; McCain lost big.
CNN's poll of people who watched the second presidential debate showed 54 percent saying Democrat Barack Obama won and 30 percent thinking Republican John McCain was the victor...
A CBS poll of uncommitted voters found: 40 percent identified Obama as the winner; 26 percent said McCain won, while 35 percent said it was a tie.
I think what's happening is that I'm breaking my back trying to judge these things fairly. But the truth is that McCain and Obama can tie on points and the Republican candidate can still lose badly. Obama scores on the points voters care most about, so respondents to these polls score it accordingly. McCain could win the argument about Russia and Georgia (and no, I don't think he did), but if Obama wins the point on the economy, Obama wins the debate altogether.
"Tonight's debate wasn't even close," wrote Taegan Goddard of Political Wire. "Sen. Barack Obama ran away with it -- particularly when speaking about the economy and health care. Talking about his mother's death from cancer was very powerful. On nearly every issue, Obama was more substantive, showed more compassion and was more presidential."
McCain, on the other hand, was "extremely erratic" and "too aggressive (referring to Obama as 'that one.')" And Brokaw "was terrible as moderator." Obama not only beat McCain, but he beat the moderator. Not that it was hard -- Brokaw was pretty awful.
Goddard also put together some quotes from other observers. Andrew Sullivan called it "a mauling: a devastating and possibly electorally fatal debate for McCain." "I don't really see how the McCain campaign survives this," he said.
"Tonight was supposed to be John McCain's night, but it was the first clear debate win Obama has scored over the course of this campaign -- including the primary," Ezra Klein wrote.
Marc Ambinder saw it this way; "CW [conventional wisdom] says that John McCain had a 90 minute window to turn his campaign around -- to put into play the McCain Resurgence Strategy, if you will, and if that's the CW threshold, I don't think McCain met it."
I think that Obama's using his position as the frontrunner to make it impossible for McCain to win these debates. He's not knocking himself out trying to win them, he's letting McCain go out on that limb. As a result, it's McCain who's taking all the risks and it's McCain who's bearing the consequences of those risks. Where Obama seems calm and steady, McCain seems strained and over-excited. At a time when people are really looking for leadership, McCain's hyperkinetic performance isn't very reassuring.
And, of course, McCain was a dick. As Goddard pointed out, he referred Obama as "that one." He played the "he doesn't understand" card again -- despite it's spectacular failure the last time. And, this time around, Obama turned it back on McCain.
Well, you know, Sen. McCain, in the last debate and today, again, suggested that I don't understand. It's true. There are some things I don't understand.
I don't understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us.
That was Sen. McCain's judgment and it was the wrong judgment.
When Sen. McCain was cheerleading the president to go into Iraq, he suggested it was going to be quick and easy, we'd be greeted as liberators.
That was the wrong judgment, and it's been costly to us.
The best McCain can manage to is to tread water. And not well or extremely successfully. McCain can't go anywhere but down. Last night's debate is probably the best he has -- it wasn't good enough. He's re-invented himself several times -- most recently from market deregulator to regulator -- and none of those re-inventions have turned out to be what Americans are looking for. This latest invention of "John the Prick" is working about as well as you'd expect. But he's tried everything else, there's nothing left.
Well, other than losing gracefully. And I don't see that happening.