Sometimes administering an old-fashioned a**-whipping on debater’s points can be disastrous politically. Take this observation of Phil’s, for example: “When Obama spoke, he looked at McCain and McCain ignored him and looked at Jim Lehrer as if Obama were too insignificant to look at, while Obama watched McCain as he was speaking as if he were listening to a lecture.” If you’re watching the debate like it’s a boxing match, that could make McCain appear dominant. But it could also make swing voters conclude McCain is rude and a jerk while Obama is polite and thoughtful.
Obama has some experience with this. Watch his debates against Alan Keyes during the 2004 Illinois Senate race. Keyes frequently made detailed arguments that Obama was unable to rebut, and sometimes didn’t even seem to understand. Yet in doing so, Keyes often seemed bullying and pedantic while Obama seemed reasonable. Keyes’s over-the-top fire and brimstone style also made it easier for Obama to seem moderate by comparison. In fact, Keyes’s infamous comment calling Cheney’s daughter a “selfish hedonist” actually came from his refusal to concede a debater’s point. He was arguing with an interview that non-procreative sex is a form of selfish hedonism, but he did not bring any names into it. The interviewer asked if that meant Mary Cheney was a selfish hedonist and Keyes concluded that, yes, by definition she must be.