This was the last presidential debate, the last time McCain had the undivided attention of tens of millions of Americans, and his last obvious opportunity to knock Obama off-balance. He did not do that, and the GOP will now have to come up with emergency measures to stop Obama’s momentum.
McCain scored some points tonight, and that were as much due to Obama’s shaky performance as to the fiery passion McCain brought to the first thirty minutes. In the opening segments, McCain displayed a determination that we had not seen in their previous two encounters. Obama, by contrast, was not focused, his answers dragged on and he let himself be boxed in a corner. He was struggling to answer McCain’s invocation of “Joe the plumber,” and that proved an obstacle to Obama scoring points on the economy. Obama soon recovered and delivered more steady responses, but they were not as powerful and emphatic as in the first two debates.
That McCain was not able to use that opening to score a clear victory tells us a lot about his failings as a candidate - and it serves as a perfect metaphor for the dynamics of the past 6 months.
Ten days ago, I faulted McCain’s lack of a coherent offensive message and his inability to identify a core attack. And tonight, McCain only aggravated this glaring problem in what was his last opportunity to disqualify his opponent. He attacked Obama on so many different issues it became hard to keep track of what he wanted the audience to think about. McCain should have relentlessly attempted to brush a vivid and coherent portrait of the risky Obama the GOP so desperately wants voters to see. Instead, what we got was a potpourri of unrelated charges strung together by a series of non sequiturs.
Instead of sticking to lines of attack that were working, McCain constantly changed gears. He shifted from taxes to socialism to spending to Ayers to ACORN to taxes again to Obama’s present votes in the Illinois State Senate to his “extreme” record on abortion to his unilateralism to his anti-trade positions and to his naive dealings with world leaders. What is the overall picture that emerges out of those attacks, what is McCain’s overarching case
If McCain is simply trying to say that Obama is a big government liberal, that is not a charge that is resonating this year - not after eight years of Bush, not when voters want the Democratic Party to be in power. McCain needs to give voters a reason to not vote for this particular Democrat and, if anything, painting him as yet another congressional liberal who wants more spending and more taxes makes him more familiar to voters. But if McCain wants to make the case that Obama is too much of a risk by invoking Ayers & Co, why spend so much time blasting Obama for just being an old style Democrat?
McCain’s failure to push any line of attack to its end was most evident in what was surely the most eagerly awaited exchange of the night - Bill Ayers. The character was McCain’s opportunity to unsettle Obama. Instead, it was McCain who looked unsettled. At first, he refused to bring up Ayers, instead sounding deeply hurt by John Lewis’s comments and accusing Obama of running a negative campaign; then, a follow-up question led McCain to unload on Obama’s “long association” with Ayers before almost immediately pivoting to declaring that his campaign was focused on getting the economy back on track.
Once McCain chose to go after Ayers without being prompted to do so, he had to go all the way and push the Illinois Senator to try to rattle Obama and obtain some sort of defensive answer. If he was not willing to do so, he should have stuck to other topics and let Ayers go. The middle ground he adopted was the worst of both worlds. If anything, he gave Obama a platform to explain to viewers his version of the Ayers story, point out calmly, for instance, that there were a number of Republicans on that board and then still have time to blame McCain for seeking to not talk about issues and about the economy.
McCain’s chaotic stream of contradictions neutralized his most forceful attacks. Another poorly prepared McCain attack that set up a strong response for Obama was the Republican’s assertion that the Democrat had never stood up to leaders of his own party. Obama calmly countered with a list of examples (some of which substantive, like teacher pay) that elicited more counter-productive mumblings by McCain (”an overwhelming vote”).
Another puzzling moment was McCain’s answer on abortion. Obama himself took the dangerous path of voluntarily talking at length about a topic that a Democrat usually wants to stay away from - even more so when the electoral battle is now being waged on red turf. But McCain chose to appeal solely to the base on a question that is important to many independent female voters. He launched into a powerful diatribe against abortion that extended beyond hitting Obama on partial-birth abortion: McCain also denounced “health provisions,” which he described as part of the “extreme” agenda and taking the risk of turning off some undecided women voters.
All of this only concerns the substance of McCain’s attacks - their tone is an entirely different story. McCain once again let his visceral dislike for Obama shine through, and that was his undoing for the third straight debate. The fire behind his initial references to Joe the Plumber soon gave way to a sense of gimmickry; he was finally on the offensive, but his inability to not use a personal tone undercut even his most effective charges as it made him look more emotional than forceful. While listening to Obama, McCain looked angry, then content, then annoyed, then exasperated; he sighed, sneered, rolled his eyes and cast stunned and wide-eyed looks on his opponent. When on the attack, he was alternatively fiery, angry, passionate and mean. And then there was the sarcasm, so much sarcasm, constant sarcasm - and can attacks voiced in a tone dripping with contempt ever prove effective?
This has been the story of the past few months. Just when McCain appears to be making progress, he undermined himself. He picked Sarah Palin and gave up on the experience argument that had been working or him in August; he allowed his campaign to bring up Ayers, mentioned him himself before backing down; his allowed gimmicky routines like his campaign suspension to get in the way of the urgent need for McCain to articulate an economic agenda and distinguish himself from President Bush.
McCain might not have lost tonight, but he did not win either - and that was a self-inflicted wound.
Update: The snap polls give Obama a clear victory, and while this could change as impressions set in the snap polls of the first two debates were confirmed by subsequent numbers. CNN’s poll has Obama winning the debate 58% to 31%;CBS’s poll of uncommitted voters had Obama 53% winning to 22%. Politico/Insider Advantage’s poll of undecided voters has a much smaller margin, 49% to 46% for Obama.