Pick your metaphor: it’s the bottom of the ninth with two outs, it’s fourth and long in the fourth quarter, or it’s the eleventh hour. Whatever you call it, John McCain came into the last debate needing a game changer. He is down more than seven percentage points nationally in the RealClearPolitics.com’s poll average and his deficits in swing states suggest an electoral landslide might be in the offing.
Worse than that, McCain’s own supporters have had it with his on again-off again attacks on Barack Obama’s associations with questionable characters (e.g. Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko) and the now-infamous ACORN, his flat-out refusal to engage on Reverend Wright, and his delinquent unveiling of his economic security package. As to the latter, Republicans wondered if he would finally put all the pieces together and launch a successful strike on his opponent. Larry Kudlow was representative of many conservatives when he mused on Tuesday:
But cutting taxes for businesses, capital gains, and individuals does give McCain a lot of pro-growth meat on the bone for the big debate. Now, if only McCain can succeed in selling these measures. … Really, the McCain tax contrast with Obama is not hard to make. In the last debate McCain referred to Obama’s tax hikes as Herbert Hoover. I’d like to see Hoover reemerge tomorrow night.
Meanwhile, Obama came into the debate with one goal: no gaffes. If he could present the same calm, nonthreatening image he had in the first two debates and fend off McCain’s barbs he would be essentially home free.
So the question remained: would McCain go for a knockout blow? Would he finally ask Obama what he was doing all those years with unrepentant terrorist Ayers, or find some other means finally to knock Obama off balance? (Conservative columnist Quin Hillyer, no McCain cheerleader, postulated before the debate that “McCain is just the cussed, unconventional, willful, irritable, Odd Man to pull it off.”)
Well, voters expecting some fireworks didn’t get a full display, but there were some sparks. Unfortunately for McCain, he did not present fluid arguments, even on points on which he had the upper hand.
When asked the difference between their financial recovery plans, McCain set out on a rambling response. On the follow up however he brought up “Joe the Plumber” and got in a mention of Obama’s “spread the wealth” philosophy. A good point, but one made in a halting and incomplete fashion.
Again on spending — a strong point for McCain — he could at best grab a tie. Obama dismissed earmarks as a minor part of the budget. Without an explanation of why this demonstrates an overall atmosphere of corruption, Obama’s response seemed rather reasonable. McCain did however score points with his argument for a spending freeze (“a hatchet’) and then additional cuts (“a scalpel’).
They finally did engage on the subject of negative ads. They accused each other of nastiness and McCain lambasted his opponent’s surrogate civil rights leader John Lewis for comparing his campaign to George Wallace. Obama never really repudiated the remark, but did gently distance himself.
McCain did engage to an extent on Bill Ayers and ACORN. He did get out some basic facts about Obama’s affiliation with both but oddly suggested the issue wasn’t one of judgment of leftist leanings but his failure to “get all the facts out.” Obama beat back the attacks with an incomplete description of his past dealings with both, cleverly leaving out any mention of the highly problematic Woods Fund.
McCain’s most effective moment may have been in dubbing Obama “Senator Government,” explaining that Obama favors government to solve problems, while he wants — yes, you know who — Joe the Plumber to earn, prosper, and solve his own problems.
And on it went — on healthcare, energy, trade, and judges. At times McCain seemed to connect with a jab or a punch here or there, but his argument at times wavered and his delivery was far from crisp. As for Obama, he was at his calmest and smoothest. If McCain needed to knock Obama off his perch of serenity it didn’t happen.
But voters should be forewarned. When cornered on the subject of the Infants Born Alive voting history Obama resorted to his favorite tactic — dissembling. He claimed there were already protections requiring medical care for infants who survived an abortion (there were not, which is why the legislation was offered) and that it would have upended Roe v. Wade (again, this was incorrect since the legislation specifically reiterated Roe and applied to born children). A calmer and more effective example of prevarication we haven’t seen since the Clinton years.
By the end of the debate Obama seemed serene. Perhaps he had reason to be. Aside from Joe the Plumber, no one in America gained more tonight. He avoided gaffes, appeared the picture of reason, and did not give supporters reason to fret. At times McCain was sharp and focused, but he rarely — if ever — pierced the veil of calm. As such, Obama comes out ahead.
There are less than three weeks left in the race. McCain has a steep climb, which did not get any less difficult after tonight.