Democrats are familiar with this scenario, in which a presidential debater is able to score points by pointing to holes in his opponent's arguments, but at too great a cost: the determination to expose fault pleases the base but the thorough negativity turns off all the undecided voters who, after all, matter most at this point. It's nice to have that going for us for a change: a candidate who seems to have an understanding of the stakes and the audience, and the good sense to not waste time trying to make me happy. I'm on board.
I thought McCain actually raised some decent objections to Obama's answers early on last night. But he overreached - on John Lewis, on Ayers, on ACORN (registering Mickey Mouse to vote threatens the fabric of our democracy?) - and he couldn't pivot back to substance without sounding like he didn't mean it. Plus, his frustration and condescending tone at times made him look and sound out of balance. No doubt, it reflects the frustration of the conservative base who can't seem to understand how Obama has gotten to the doorstep of the White House. So it doesn't seem off base to them; it's a cathartic release to see the exasperation they feel expressed on national TV. But to undecided voters - God bless them, whoever they are - there are arguments for both candidates. They are not frustrated with one side; they are waiting for a moment of confidence. McCain's strategy ignores this reality, while Obama's true self seems tailor made for it. Calm, confident, competence that understands the issues that really matter.
2 moments stuck out for me. One was small but made me smile, when Obama took McCain's praise of Palin's commitment to autism and special-needs children, and reminded that we couldn't increase our spending on that important area if we implement McCain's spending freeze idea. The other was more substantial and I hope we hear more about it: when McCain put women's "health" in air-quotes. That's the "extremist pro-abortion" position, he said, to use the crutch of health of the mother in opposition to anti-abortion legislation. To me, it was a shockingly tone-deaf moment, dismissive of the idea that women might have legitimate health risks worth considering. It's also completely inaccurate. Insistence on provisions for the mother's health is not an extremist position; it's the law of the land, the position of the US Supreme Court.
I can't access sound right now, but TPM seems to have the video of that exchange here, in case you missed it.