God grant me strength.  Paul Notbuttrocket, Least of All Your Creations, is making sense:

It’s tempting to the think of a presidential debate as a moment of truth. Advertisements may be pure spin and conventions may be staged, but in a debate it’s mostly about which candidate has superior command of the issues, greater debating skill, and the more winning personality. Everyone recognizes, of course, that expectations factor in, and that the candidate with the lead can “win” the debate by not losing it. But this sort of analysis merely represents a fine-tuning of an underlying result that turns on the debate performance.

In reality, though, a debate performance cannot be divorced from the substantive context of the campaign. Thus, a candidate who is running into a strong headwind throughout the campaign can expect a corresponding headwind during the debate. And a debating style or personality that would meet with approval in one kind of race might be widely disparaged in another. [...]

And that’s where those headwinds enter the picture. The ones McCain confronts have to do with unhappiness over the Iraq war and over the state of the economy. Thus, McCain may have hammered Obama over his opposition to the surge, but if voters think the decision to invade Iraq was more consequential than the decisions that finally seem to have enabled us to succeed there, then Obama will still have the edge. Similarly, no matter how well McCain debates the economy (and here his performance was not that strong), the justified perception that his economic views are closer than Obama’s to those of President Bush’s represent a built-in [disadvantage].

The extent to which voters like what they hear also spills over into how they perceive the demeanor of the candidates. I’ve seen enough of these debates to know that a style that appears commanding and presidential in (say) good times may seem arrogant and condescending when times are thought to be bad.

If McCain “lost” last night’s debate, let’s hope that he lost it because he didn’t debate well. Debate performances can improve; just ask George W. Bush. But if McCain out-debated Obama (as I believe he did) but still “lost,” that would be a pretty strong sign that voters just aren’t buying what he’s selling and that, consequently, McCain is destined to be rejected in November.

The blogosphere concerns itself – not exclusively, but inordinately – with politics as perception.  Media criticism; close-reading newspaper editorials; tracking, critiquing, mocking, and assessing the fads of the news cycle – this is what we do.  This has utility for some stories.  Foreign policy, for example: this is an area of politics which – unless you are in the military, or travel a lot on business, or have family abroad – is not directly experienced by most Americans.  They are understood through news reports, and if the news is portrayed positively, people will perceive the policy in that light.  If not, than not.  Spin, framing, gaming the refs – this is critical to creating the perceptions which will determine policy’s political viability.

But politics isn’t just about perception, it’s about direct experience.  In eight years, many families and communities have had to bury their soldiers, dead in Iraq.  A major American city was washed away, to Presidential indifference.  Economic uncertainty has increased, slowly, surely, and the current urgency to bailout the Haves (and with what money, pray tell?) while homes go into forclosure, and gas in unaffordable, and jobs are lost, and health care is taken away, only highlights the truth of most Americans’ situation – we are disposable, our problems are our own, and government – Republican government – does not care.  You can’t spin a dead son, you can’t frame a drowned city, and you can’t blame a pink slip on liberal media bias.  Well, you can do these things, of course, and thousands of people make a good living doing just that, but it’s a whole lot harder to make it stick.

Watching the debate, I had 3 observations, which I graciously share with you now:

1. Boooooooooooooooooooring.

2. Barack Obama does a great John Kerry impersonation.

3. Say what you will about the man – and I have – 72-year-old John McCain is about a billion times smarter and less absurd than George W. Bush.  (So’s Sarah Palin, so’s my 26-pound cat.  Still.)

But it doesn’t matter.  This election – for a larger section of the electorate than any since at least 1992 – isn’t a referendum on perception, it’s a long-overdue referendum on the state of people’s lives, and this society.  This is why John McCain keeps doing all these bizarre “Hail Mary” stunts – he can’t win otherwise.  He’s got to try and confuse everybody with Jerry Springer shananigans and melodramatic announcements and linking Barack Obama to al Qaeda and Timothy Leary and the Screech Sex Tape and hope that, somehow, the American public is stupid enough to ask for four more years of this shit.  He’s got to do all this stuff, but he knows it probably won’t be enough.  He’s probably going to lose.  To a black guy.  A black guy with an Ay-rab name who is smarter, taller, more decent, more educated, and just all around better than you and everyone you know; who could have your job and your whole life in a heartbeat but doesn’t need or want it; and who your cracker wife imagines she’s with when she’s fucking you, or Dustin Diamond, or whoever.  He’s got Karl Rove, in a perfect storm of redneck ressentiment and panic, and it’s just not enough.  He is fucked.

Even Notbuttrocket knows it.