Bob Schieffer of CBS News moderated this third debate, a fairly lively one, from Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Coming into this, McCain had to make up for some lost ground in the last couple of weeks amid a financial crisis that has made most Americans edgy about having a Republican in charge. McCain’s numbers have been down; some would say that his negative campaigning and declining confidence in running mate Palin have caused somewhat of a free fall. In contrast, Obama’s numbers have either risen slightly or remain stable. What McCain had to do was something more aggressive in this debate, which would focus on domestic policy, that would set Obama on edge and keep him constantly on the defensive. As a bonus, if he could throw the normally unflustered Obama, McCain could score some much-needed points.
Alas, only some of this happened. McCain came out swinging right away and arguably dominated the first half-hour of the proceedings. Regarding their economic plans, Schieffer asked each candidate why theirs was preferable to the other’s. McCain cited his mortgage rescue plan, which would have the US Treasury buy up upwards of $300 billion of those homes that are facing foreclosure –thus “putting the homeowners first”. Obama’s response was to address the concerns of the middle class, including tax credits for companies to create jobs, a middle-class tax cut, and a proposal to renegotiate mortgages. With that, McCain suddenly turned animated –in his unnatural, creepy way, of course—and he launched into what would become a leitmotif (or annoying character, whichever is more appropriate) of the evening, the mention of “Joe the Plumber”. Joe is someone Obama met on the campaign trail several days earlier.McCain exploits this person by saying how Obama’s economic plan would actually hurt him by placing him with a higher tax liability. The rhetoric becomes clear instantly: McCain, with gloves off, goes for the jugular by lamenting that this “real” person cannot “realize his American dream”. Then McCain looks at the camera and talks to Joe! “Joe, I’ll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for”, he intones, “and I will stand for a tax increase in small business income…”
Checkmate. Obama listens calmly, takes a few notes, and eagerly awaits his turn. Then he too gets into it about Joe the Plumber, arguing that he would actually give him and other small business owners tax breaks. McCain basically has the last word and “Joe the Plumber” becomes the analogy for the average –and ailing—American small business owner that doesn’t like taxes and doesn’t want to pay them.
The line of the night occurred a few minutes later, and it was delivered assertively by McCain: “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.” Oh, snap! That one was timed well, and McCain’s henchmen most certainly planned this one to occur at the moment that Obama would surely try to affix his policies to those of the current administration. It’s a solid charge, but it goes against McCain’s whole independent, “maverick” persona. It also clearly pisses him off ; “I’m gonna give a new direction to this economy and this country”, he asserted. And tonight, the rapid fire line about him not being Bush was intended to throw Obama off. And for a few seconds it did, but it did so minimally.
The lead-up to this debate was clear: McCain, in the waning weeks of this campaign, had to focus on a frontal attack on his opponent and not appear weak in response. This is a style that he is used to, and his curmudgeon-like face and visible scowl were much on display. Several times McCain referred coldly to Obama as “Senator McCain” and several times he appeared to roll his eyes dismissively at him when Obama spoke. The problem is this: the streetfight is not necessarily Obama’s strong suit. He argues well, and during the debate came back rapidly at McCain to refute all of his points, including the one about McCain’s charge that his plan would increase taxes. Obama, by contrast, has a sense of what some call “professorial” –one in which he cites points deliberately and explains them somewhat dispassionately, as if he is giving a college lecture. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this; it’s just that, with a grumpy McCain leveling various charges and possible distortions or distractions (can you say William Ayers?), you’d think Obama would be more vociferous or visibly angry. I am of the mind, however, that he simply doesn’t want to get into the name calling and polemical language that McCain and Palin have been practicing. By taking a much more measured approach, and deflecting all of McCain’s charges, Obama prevailed as the winner of the debate. Nevertheless, some comments:
• On the question of “taking the high road” in the campaign, well, this is where the sparks really flew. McCain went into a long story about how he was troubled that Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis had compared his political rallies to racial events in our ugly past in the South, even saying they reminded him of the late Gov. George Wallace. This he repudiated, of course, but he wondered why Obama had not done the same. McCain the victim. McCain apparently hasn’t heard what is really said at his rallies. McCain apparently feels he cannot take control of what his own supporters, with their buttons and signs, say. He has to put it on the other guy to rein in people on the other side. The net result: McCain comes off looking his feelings are hurt and well, isn’t this a distraction anyways?
• Obama was partly wrong when he tried to assail McCain with the claim that “90%” of his ads have been negative. Perhaps he tried to make a general point, and that was the problem. On the face of it, if you turn on the TV in many of these battleground states, all you see are negative ads. (Believe me, I was in North Carolina and in Georgia this past week. Every commercial break is a campaign ad, and there are some nasty ones. Oh yeah, and Liddy Dole will lose her Senate seat.) Obama should have been more careful or qualified his remarks. An article the other day in the New York Times proves this, but only when it is limited to the week of September 28 to October 4. It may seem that it’s all negative, and maybe that isn’t a good thing. The past week’s polling has shown that some of McCain’s negative attacks and smears have taken a toll on his numbers.
• At about 35 minutes into the debate, McCain sounded his last call at impugning Obama’s character by once again bringing up Bill Ayers, the red flag that his campaign has desperately held onto for the past couple of weeks. McCain wants to deny but also won’t let this old story, this chapter in Obama’s life that has been checked out before and forgotten. Why? Because he and his campaign –not just Palin, but the officious lackeys—do not want to confront issues that really matter to the average American like Joe the Plumber, the fact that we are, in McCain’s words, dealing with a “washed-up terrorist”, says more about McCain than about anything an 8-year-old Obama back in the late 60s could have. This is distracting. This is patently wrong. But for every moment that McCain breathlessly cites that “we need to know the full extent of (his) relationship with (Ayers)”, you did not see Obama slap him back with the unsavory details about the Keating Five. It isn’t his style, and as he said, he wants to focus on what’s really on the minds of Americans that are in this troubled economy right now.
• Kudos to both candidates for mentioning one forgotten issue in this campaign: education. It is a “civil rights issue” as McCain claims, but it isn’t in the way he wants to change the existing system. A lot of it will require a more systematic approach from the bottom up, as Obama is suggesting.
• That plumber guy? His name isn’t “Joe”. His name is Sam. He got a visit from a phalanx of reporters on his doorstep the next day. And he owes $1200 in back taxes.
• Hey, don’t plumbers make bank anyways? I heard they made upwards of $80 or 90K. Here’s a nifty report about what various “Joes” make around the country today, from Joe Sixpack to dim Joey Tribbiani on “Friends”.
Winner: for poise alone, Obama. Final score: 3-0.