If appearances alone decided the debate’s winner, then John McCain won. His energetic demeanor helped dampen concerns that he is too old for the job. Obama, on the other hand, did not come across as the candidate of cool. His expression alternated between a scowl and what Raymond Chandler called “that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream.”
Unfortunately for the Republicans, appearances do not decide elections. We are all familiar with the claim that JFK beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election because he looked better in their first debate. But that notion does not hold up under scrutiny. As Nixon recalled in Six Crises, the decisive event of the campaign was an economic downturn that hit bottom in October, just as voters were making up their minds. An increase in the jobless rolls of 425,000 mattered a good deal more than Nixon’s face powder.
In that light, recent economic turmoil is bad for the GOP. If people think that the news will get worse, then the most stellar McCain debate performances will not keep Obama from winning. But if the bailout package starts to restore confidence, then McCain still has a chance. The real action tonight is on Capitol Hill, not the Ole Miss campus.