The least self-aware moment for John McCain in last night's debate came at the half-way point, when he said, "I'm afraid Senator Obama doesn't understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy."
In a sense McCain was sticking to his battle plan in saying this -- the plan being on-message hammering-home of the "Obama doesn't understand" theme. In another sense, he lost his way, since he immediately segued not into a discussion of strategic matters in Iraq and Afghanistan but into an anecdote. But that kind of literal parsing of his answer -- tactical analysis, you might call it -- really misses the point.
There has been no greater contrast between the Obama and McCain campaigns than the tactical-vs-strategic difference, with McCain demonstrating the primacy of short-term tactics and Obama sticking to a more coherent long-term strategy. And McCain's dismissive comment suggests that he still does not realize this.
Some examples are so familiar as to need no explanation: McCain choosing the ten-day tactical "bounce" from the surprise choice of Sarah Palin, in exchange for the enormous strategic risk in choosing an un-vetted and now obviously unqualified running mate. Or McCain rolling the dice with his threat to boycott the debate -- and then, once on stage, appearing to be only mildly interested in the financial-bailout deal that 72 hours earlier was the stated reason for overturning all agreements about the debates .
But the personas that the two men chose to present in the debate indicated the difference in a profound way. The truths of debates are these:
* Emotional messages, which are variants on "how do I feel about this person?", are all that matter in presidential debates. Issues discussions are significant mainly to the extent they shape these impressions. For instance: a candidate's view on the economy feeds the impression of whether he sympathizes with "people like me." Or views on foreign policy feed the impression of whether he would be "a leader we can trust."
* Barring a truly disastrous performance, each side's partisans will think their candidate did well, and will be reinforced in the reasons for supporting the person they already like. Thus John McCain supporters will think he sounded confident and masterful; Obama supporters will think he kept presenting the big-picture perspective on national security and the economy. Which means therefore:
* The audience that matters is people who start out undecided or uncertain -- and finally are looking for emotional reassurance about who they can imagine as president for the next four years. In general, such viewers are only now starting to pay serious attention to the campaign -- in contrast to people already committed to helping (or stopping) one of the candidates. That is why the first debate is a unique "re-launch" opportunity for the candidates to present themselves to people who realize it's time to make up their minds.
Everything John McCain did on stage last night was consistent with trying to score tactical points in those 90 minutes. He belittled Obama with the repeated "he doesn't understand"s; he was explicitly insulting to him in saying at the end "I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience" for the job (a line Joe Biden dare not use so bluntly on Sarah Palin); and implicitly he was shockingly rude and dismissive in refusing ever to look Obama in the eye. Points scored -- in the short term, to the cheers of those already on his side.
Obama would have pleased his base better if he had fought back more harshly in those 90 minutes -- cutting McCain off, delivering a similarly harsh closing judgment, using comparably hostile body language, and in general acting more like a combative House of Commons debater. Those would have been effective tactics minute by minute.
But Obama either figured out, or instinctively understood, that the real battle was to make himself seem comfortable, reasonable, responsible, well-versed, and in all ways "safe" and non-outsiderish to the audience just making up its mind about him. (And yes, of course, his being a young black man challenging an older white man complicated everything he did and said, which is why his most wittily aggressive debate performance was against another black man, Alan Keyes, in his 2004 Senate race.) The evidence of the polls suggests that he achieved exactly this strategic goal. He was the more "likeable," the more knowledgeable, the more temperate, etc. (Update: though from here on out he doesn't have to say "John is right..." anywhere near as often as he did last night.) .
For years and years, Democrats have wondered how their candidates could "win" the debates on logical points -- that is, tactics -- but lose the larger struggle because these seemed too aggressive, supercilious, cold-blooded, or whatever. To put it in tactical/strategic terms, Democrats have gotten used to winning battles and losing wars. Last night, the Democratic candidate showed a far keener grasp of this distinction than did the Republican who accused him of not understanding it.