Last night’s debate between Barack Obama and John McCain has convinced me that this is likely to be a lopsided victory for the Democrat. Political science theories would all look at conditions and conclude that this is clearly going to be a Democratic victory. The fact Obama is black, and McCain is running as a maverick might muddy the waters. But Obama’s debate victory (at least according to early post-debate polling) against John McCain suggests that as long as Obama doesn’t take a major stumble, he will be inaugurated President in January 2009.
First, while on the ‘expectations game’ Obama was expected to do better, the real issue is whether Obama has the stature to be President. Last night, McCain tried all he could to minimize Obama. He repeated the mantra “Senator Obama does not understand…” so many times that it became comical. It was clear he was instructed to say that as often as he could to try to create the impression Obama wasn’t ready. Yet Obama was clearly in command of his facts and confident; it ended up sounding more condescending than real.
To be sure, there was no knock out punch. But while McCain sounded themes which will no doubt sound good to partisan Republicans, Obama’s task was not to defeat McCain but to show the country he’s ready to lead. He had to avoid looking unsteady or unsure. There are two more debates, but Obama showed tonight — when the topic was foreign policy, supposedly McCain’s strength — that he can handle the pressure.
McCain, in trying to stress his experience, often lingered too much in the past. That is a risky strategy for him. The election is about the future, and both candidates claim to be about change. While it is legitimate for McCain to make the argument he’s been around longer and has dealt with more issues than Obama, stories from the Cold War or the 80s — as well as name dropping — detracts from that notion of focusing on change or the future.
So debate one is over. McCain headed into it weakened, having tried to “suspend” his campaign to focus on the economic crisis, only to have his efforts seem irrelevant. Then, despite no deal having been reached, he had to change his mind on his pledge “no deal, no debate” and show up to avoid giving Obama the stage alone. All this puts Barack a step closer to the Presidency. There still is time to change the game for McCain, but right now the race seems to be moving towards an Obama victory, perhaps a big one.