The third and final Presidential debate is now history. According to the polls, the verdict of the voters is Senator Obama soundly defeated Senator McCain as he had in the previous two debates. While many say this was McCain’s strongest performance of the three joint appearances, it wasn’t enough. The problem faced by McCain coming into Wednesday’s debate was not only that he was running behind Obama in all national polls and a growing number of state polls but that Obama had passed the 50% threshold in a growing number of polls. If Obama were under 50% then McCain’s challenge would have been to convince more undecided voters to back him over Obama. But with Obama over 50%, McCain had to convince all undecided voters to swing his way plus convert a number of people who have already decided Obama was their man.
But McCain was his own worse enemy. His answers were not so much geared to address the needs and concerns of independent voters and middle class Americans – the people who swing these elections one way or the other – but he seemed ignore these citizens and concentrated on talking points important to America’s dwindling number of conservative ideologues. It is as if he were not running for the November election but still running for the Republican nomination last spring. In the face of an unprecedented economic crisis for modern time he tried ever so hard to rekindle the culture wars of previous decades.
McCain mentioned Joe the Plumber almost two dozen times (in what Marc Ambinder calls the “real person fetish” of the day) supposedly as a living example of the wisdom of the Arizona Senator’s proposal. He represented real people. He was the new Sara Palin. The problem was that this real person example was no better vetted by his campaign than his vice presidential pick. He is not a plumber. He owes back taxes. He makes well under $250,000 annually meaning he would receive a tax cut if Obama were elected President.
And then there was McCain’s bizarre body language. If his campaign staff pounded into his head that he needed to hold his tongue they failed to mention he should not roll his eyes when the camera was on him. Actually, he didn’t hold his tongue or control his body language. He is a man, much like George Bush, who seems to think sarcasm is a substitute to a superior argument. Much like George Bush, he doesn’t know how to agree to disagree with a political opponent. He only questions the motives and character of those who dare to disagree with him. This is not a very promising character trait for leadership.
Hendrik Hertzberg has these observations about the debate in the New Yorker:
The word ahead of time had been that McCain needed a “game changer,” and presumably Joe the Plumber was going to be it. I remember seeing Joe on some cable network or other a few days ago, in a report on an Obama campaign event. Obama met him on a rope line and tried to persuade him of the virtues of his middle-class tax cut. The guy wasn’t having any. (Now we know why: Joe, who looks like Henry Paulsen on beer, is a stalwart Republican.)
I imagine somebody at McCain headquarters saw the same clip, checked Joe out to make sure he was politically correct (though the vetting was no more rigorous than Sarah Palin’s), and gave the candidate a memo. As a result, Samuel J. (Joe) Wurzelbacher, of Toledo, Ohio, is the most famous nonmetaphorical plumber since George Meany (Google him, kids).
The problem was that McCain mentioned Joe the Plumber so many times that it became a running joke that, as of this writing, is still running, with McCain as the butt—and that’s before Jon Stewart gets hold of it tonight.
My eyes were pretty much riveted on Obama during the debate, so I missed McCain’s bizarro repertoire of Elmer Fudd-like facial expressions—which, I now realize after reviewing the video clips, were a lot more unpleasant than the Democrat’s arguably smug smiles. But I like to think that McCain’s real problem, especially during the last half, was substance.
Obama was able, for example, to give a reasonably complete description of his tax and health-care proposals. McCain tangled himself up in a Reaganite ideology that has never looked more threadbare. Instead of American English, he spoke a dialect of Heritage Foundation-speak, sprinkling his disjointed answers with winger shorthand: “trial lawyers,” “capital gains,” “class warfare,” airquote health of the mother unairquote. Obama, in his rope-line chat with Joe, had said casually, “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” and McCain evidently thought that just contemptuously repeating the phrase “spread the wealth,” as he did nine times, would be enough to expose Obama as a dangerous redistributionist. McCain failed to consider that after eight years of skyrocketing hedge-fund payoffs and declining real wages climaxing in a massive prospective shrinking in the whole economy, a little wealth-spreading might not sound as threatening to Main Street as it does to K Street.
McCain repeated that he is not George Bush and in previous debates tried to put distance between himself and the Bush-Cheney White House and bragged about his “maverick” reputation in Congress ruffling feathers of his fellow Republicans. Obama pointed out McCain’s overwhelming support for Bush during the past eight years but what Obama failed to ask McCain directly was why McCain chose to run as a Republican at all. The Republican nomination is an albatross around the neck of many politicians this year. Senator McCain – the so-called maverick – could have easily run as an independent running against both Republicans and Democrats. However, he chose to run as the heir to George Bush even as he is running away from George Bush. He’ll learn on November 4th that he can’t have it both ways.