Attack Ads vs. Attack Debates

| Wed Oct. 8, 2008 4:46 PM EDT

ATTACK ADS vs. ATTACK DEBATES....A lot of people seem to be surprised that John McCain didn't pull out all the stops last night and lay down a barrage of attacks against Barack Obama for palling around with terrorists, taking loans from crooks, abandoning our troops, and so forth. But I think this misses something important: debates are a terrible place to do this.

TV ads are a different story. In fact, they've been practically conventionalized over the years with their grainy photos, creepy music, and scary sounding announcers. Sure, at the end you have to say "I'm John McCain and I approve this message," but that's not much. The ad still seems almost completely impersonal. It's an attack, but it's not really an attack from anyone.

But a debate is a whole different story. The stage is a small, intimate setting, and if you want to attack somebody, it has to come straight out of your mouth and it has to be directed against someone standing just a few feet away. People react way differently to that than they do to an ad, and for the most part they react badly. It's like watching married friends arguing with each other: it makes you uncomfortable and edgy. You just want it to stop.

That's probably why McCain didn't light into Obama last night. Despite what I said yesterday, it's not that he didn't want to, but that he's smart enough to know that unless you pull it off perfectly, all you accomplish is to make yourself unsympathetic. And whatever else you can say about him, John McCain is very much not a guy who can pull this off perfectly.