Obama or McCain: Who's performing better?

A week-long debate about the candidate's strong suits and weak points.


How long has this interminable yet strangely fascinating presidential campaign gone on? So long that even I, who have a book out on one of the two major candidates and a semi-political magazine to edit, would really, really rather talk about the rehabilitation of the Hollywood Palladium or the liberation of my fair ex-city's taco trucks (you're next, oh valiant bacon-dog vendors!). This campaign has gone on for so long that—no lie—during its course Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez has not once but twice blown game two of the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox; so long that when I saw Fred Thompson the other night in that great 1990 period piece Die Hard 2, it took me a few moments before I remembered to say, "Ha ha, I'm with Fred!"

But, as we all know, this is the most important election in the history of ever, and even if it's not, maybe talking about it for a week will make these last 30 days go faster. So let's start by going literal: Interesting choice of words there by my former colleagues, "performing." To paraphrase Elvis, all the world of politics is a stage, and the dramaturgy of the past two months has been, in almost every instance, more interesting and probably more revealing than the substance of any soliloquy.

Take the Obamas at the Democratic National Convention. Though a nation of pundits applauded, I groaned at Michelle's gee-willickers, I-watched-The Brady Bunch-too shtick on opening night. Thankfully for her, I wasn't the target audience. That whole week's staging, down to the mostly boring nomination speech, was designed to pound home two messages about Barack Obama over and over again: No really, even though you don't know me and I might be perceived with worry in some quarters, I am, in fact, as normal as any American you have ever met; and despite the inexperience, you can trust me on foreign policy. The exact same calculus was at play with the selection of Joe Biden, who, despite being one of the Senate's worst drug warriors and a Grade-A certified clown, at least knows a lot about foreign policy and allegedly seems "normal" to people in Scranton, Penn.

Obama is a smart enough campaigner to know in his core what this election's central truth has been even before President Bush declared that the Great Depression is just around the corner: This is a terrible, terrible year for Republicans, and deservedly so. All Obama has really had to do is avoid seeming too scary, radiate stentorian calm and hope there isn't soon another foreign policy crisis on the level of the Russia-Georgia war or worse. He has succeeded very well on all these points.

John McCain, on the other hand, has been performing like a chicken with its head cut off. Don't take my word for it; read such other non-Democrats as George Will, Charles Krauthammer and former maverick strategist Mike Murphy. The man has gone from one Hail Mary to the next, thundering against bailouts one day, voting for them the next, and exuding a kind of angry, scattershot incoherence that is clearly starting to become wearisome to a general population that once snacked out of his hand. It's almost impossible to remember at this point, but he was famously a "Happy Warrior" in the 2000 presidential campaign, though maybe that was because he knew he was going to lose.

Are the two candidates "resonating with voters"? Unlike too many political pundits, I am happy to admit that I have no freaking idea what "voters" think, nor would I be anything but scared if I ever found out. I do suspect that voters (or at least my wife) are connecting most on a human level with the unique character of Sarah Palin, even if many are concluding (with either sadness or glee) that she belongs nowhere near the Red Button. I do agree with Sebastian Mallaby today (it had to happen once!) that Obama and the Democrats are setting themselves up for a fall if they think that justified voter anger at the Wall Street crisis and the bailout is congruent with some kind of over-arching public desire for re-regulation and the kind of anti-Wall Street rhetoric I thought we'd safely buried with Oliver Stone. (Sadly for the Republicans, their standard-bearer is little better on this malefactors-of-great-wealth front.)

But Obama doesn't have to resonate or even offer sound economic policies to win this election; he just needs to talk calmly and hope we don't launch a shooting war with Pakistan. Democrats this year are fired up with hate for all things Republican; independents are sick of Republicans too. Even Republicans are tired of themselves, especially here in Washington.

A final first-day note of warning, however: John McCain loves being the underdog. His whole mentality and even worldview thrive on it. This has been the craziest election I can remember ( Mike Huckabee? Sarah Palin? A black guy with the middle name Hussein making the nomination finals against a woman?), and McCain is nothing if not a drama queen. We are going to see some pretty weird stuff here down the home stretch, perhaps starting as soon as Tuesday night's presidential debate. Though I'm afraid America will lose no matter who wins the election, at least we've been treated to some first-rate entertainment.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason and author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, now available in paperback with a new afterword by the author.

All week at The Los Angeles Times, Welch is debating University of Southern California law professor Kareem Crayton about the upcoming election and John McCain's and Barack Obama's policies (or lack thereof). To read Crayton's first response, go here. And check in daily at reason's Hit & Run for links to the latest exchanges.