The vogue in debate analysis is to focus on body language, eye contact, human connection, memorable turns of phrase. All that's important but it's ancillary. At least in this contest.
The best explanation for Obama's success, in the debates as in the campaign, is the simplest, if the unlikeliest. He has convinced voters of two things: that that he has the interests of the middle class at heart, and that he has the intelligence to devise policies that will advance their interests. He's succeeding because he has the patience to walk voters through complex ideas.
Three moments in last night's debate showcase that intelligence:
1. Asked how the $700 billion bank bailout will help ordinary people who are "having a hard time":
OBAMA: Well, Oliver, first, let me tell you what's in the rescue package for you. Right now, the credit markets are frozen up and what that means, as a practical matter, is that small businesses and some large businesses just can't get loans.
If they can't get a loan, that means that they can't make payroll. If they can't make payroll, then they may end up having to shut their doors and lay people off.
And if you imagine just one company trying to deal with that, now imagine a million companies all across the country.
So it could end up having an adverse effect on everybody, and that's why we had to take action. But we shouldn't have been there in the first place.
If Paulson, Bush and Bernanke had emphasized that cause-and-effect at the outset, the bailout bill would have passed the first time around.
2. On why McCain wants to allow purchase of health insurance across state lines:
Obama has been relentless in the last two weeks in tying McCain's healthcare proposal to his degulatory ideology. Contra Factcheck.org, he's dead right on this.
And the reason that it's a problem to go shopping state by state, you know what insurance companies will do? They will find a state -- maybe Arizona, maybe another state -- where there are no requirements for you to get cancer screenings, where there are no requirements for you to have to get pre-existing conditions, and they will all set up shop there.
That's how in banking it works. Everybody goes to Delaware, because they've got very -- pretty loose laws when it comes to things like credit cards.
And in that situation, what happens is, is that the protections you have, the consumer protections that you need, you're not going to have available to you.
That is a fundamental difference that I have with Sen. McCain. He believes in deregulation in every circumstance. That's what we've been going through for the last eight years. It hasn't worked, and we need fundamental change.
3. QUESTION: Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?
We will kill bin Laden; we will crush Al Qaida. Making this promise without Giulianiesque bluster and without sounding like a callow poseur has perhaps been Obama's c-in-c threshold task. He's crossed that threshold in voter's minds by, again, focusing on priority. Move resources from Iraq to "the central front." Focus on nonmilitary aid and diplomacy as well as on bolstering the military effort. Make it clear to the Pakistanis that if they don't go after al Qaeda, the U.S. will. That does not come across as saber-rattling because, to borrow a metaphor Obama uses elsewhere, he's rhetorically wielding a scalpel rather than a hatchet. He's made his priorities clear.
OBAMA: Katie, it's a terrific question and we have a difficult situation in Pakistan. I believe that part of the reason we have a difficult situation is because we made a bad judgment going into Iraq in the first place when we hadn't finished the job of hunting down bin Laden and crushing al Qaeda.
So what happened was we got distracted, we diverted resources, and ultimately bin Laden escaped, set up base camps in the mountains of Pakistan in the northwest provinces there.
They are now raiding our troops in Afghanistan, destabilizing the situation. They're stronger now than at any time since 2001. And that's why I think it's so important for us to reverse course, because that's the central front on terrorism.
They are plotting to kill Americans right now. As Secretary Gates, the defense secretary, said, the war against terrorism began in that region and that's where it will end. So part of the reason I think it's so important for us to end the war in Iraq is to be able to get more troops into Afghanistan, put more pressure on the Afghan government to do what it needs to do, eliminate some of the drug trafficking that's funding terrorism.
But I do believe that we have to change our policies with Pakistan. We can't coddle, as we did, a dictator, give him billions of dollars and then he's making peace treaties with the Taliban and militants.
OBAMA: What I've said is we're going to encourage democracy in Pakistan, expand our nonmilitary aid to Pakistan so that they have more of a stake in working with us, but insisting that they go after these militants.
And if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden; we will crush Al Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority.
As he has in each of the cases above. Get the economy moving again. Maintain consumer protections in health insurance. Focus our anti-terror efforts on Al Qaeda. In each (or in the longer responses excerpted here), the wrong course is debunked: weaken bank regulation. Further weaken health insurance regulation. Get distracted in Iraq. In each, a laundry list of policy components is keyed toward the goal.
How many of those measures are feasible, or affordable, or advisable, time will tell. But the basic structure of Obama's approach to problem solving is on display, and has been for eighteen months.
UPDATE: Seems I'm very much on the same page as Noam Scheiber.