Obama Three for Three: Short Takes on the Final Presidential Debate

Election '08
Don Hazen:

On the day that the Dow went down 733 points -- the most ever in a single day -- after going up almost a 1,000 the day before yesterday -- also the most in a single day -- John McCain showed that he really can't change at all. McCain had to transform his method and tone of communicating to have any chance of gaining any ground against the unflappable and eerily consistent Obama in the third debate.

But McCain couldn't change at all and, in fact, did worse. His scripted Joe Plumber scenario didn't pay off and left the viewers confused. His attacks about Bill Ayers reduced his favorables consistent with poll results. McCain has been on a losing streak for almost two months, and there is no sign he can break out of his self-imposed straightjacket and dependence on the Rovian tactics that have consistently proved unpopular except for his ever-narrowing hard core base.

While McCain didn't totally fail to address individual questions offered by Bob Schieffer and even made a couple of good points, it was the overall flavor of the encounter that was decisive. All McCain could do was ratchet up the persona he displayed in the first two debates -- he was more pushy, more agitated, more scripted, more aggressive, and as a result, he got nowhere. The two of them could debate 50 times and the results would be the same: Grumpy old man losses to smart, calm, cool and collected every time.

In the debates, Obama is like the player in a squash or racquetball game who plants himself in the middle of the court and can't be budged, winning point after point. McCain desperately tried to get around him, but there was no where to go. It is all about position, and Obama occupies the middle. Obama proudly said he was for tort reform angering the trial lawyers, for charter schools annoying the teachers, for clean coal, pissing off the enviros, and against late-term abortions, not the political position of pro-choice groups. In virtually every issue, McCain desperately tries to paint Obama as the extremist, but ends up with the opposite effect at the extreme end himself.

The McCain mantras -- Obama is for higher taxes, Obama is unilateral, Obama is against Colombia and free trade, Obama won't drill for oil, Obama is out of the mainstream of America on abortion -- all rang hollow because McCain has no credibility on these issues. Each time Obama is able to reframe McCain's attacks and persistently push out his message of middle class tax cuts, health care reform, energy independence, and investment in education. He does it over and over and over. For the third debate in a row, McCain did not utter the term "middle class," as if it is a stigma -- clearly not a way to win an election in America, in a time of acute economic distress when there is enormous hostility toward the wealthy bankers, hedge funders, and financial class whose astounding greed brought us to the abyss, and now everyone will pay for it.

Late in the debate was the clincher for McCain's demise. McCain lost it the most when discussing abortion, putting air quotes around “health of the woman," belittling women's health concerns as if it were a political slogan, This stage of the debate was infuriating, and will be remembered by millions of women. The notion that many women thought McCain to be pro-choice, is now ancient history.

Meanwhile, Obama went out of his way to show his support for aging single women who were desperate for health care. The marriage gap is huge -- with giant numbers of single women supporting Obama -- but now there is little doubt he is also going to get the majority of married women as well. The end result is we are looking at a potential rout -- the momentum just keeps building. The possibility of a huge victory for the Democrats seems not only possible, but likely, with even a decent chance of getting 60 seats in the Senate, an astounding achievement, should it come to pass, after eight long years of Republican rule.

Liliana Segura:

Who could have predicted, at the outset of the third and last presidential debate, that the largest looming presence would not be former Weather Undergrounder William Ayers after all, but rather, the once-anonymous (and by the end of the night, quasi-fictitious) man named "Joe the plumber"?

Joe -- an actual voter from Ohio whose last name is Wurzelbacher -- is a small business owner who, in an exchange with Obama last weekend, apparently expressed concern over his economic plan. At last night's debate, McCain employed Joe the plumber to wax ominous about Obama's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy (evidence, ostensibly of his socialist leanings). If Obama gets his way, said McCain, "We're going to take Joe's money, give it to Senator Obama and let him spread the wealth around."

Like "Joe six-pack," "Joe the plumber" quickly became shorthand for the average American, despite the fact that the average American does not own a small business, let alone a payroll. But both McCain and Obama adopted the narrative of Joe the Plumber, to mixed results. ("I loved Joe the plumber!" said one undecided voter in Ohio during CNN's post-debate coverage. "You're about the only one," said Soledad O'Brien.)

But the apparently right-wing zealot Joe the plumber has already gotten more than his share of attention in the post-debate analysis, at the expense of a few rather golden moments. In the latter half of the debate, upon discussing what kinds of judges Obama and McCain would nominate to the Supreme Court, McCain committed a fairly jaw-dropping gaffe, one that, like his "my fellow prisoners" moment, should really give his supporters pause. "I voted for Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg," McCain said, "not because I agreed with their ideology but because I thought they were qualified ... This is a very important issue we're talking about.

"Senator Obama voted against Justice Breyer and Justice Roberts on the grounds that they didn't meet his ideological standards. That's not the way we should judge these nominees. Elections have consequences. They should be judged on their qualifications."

The problem, of course, is that Justice Breyer was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1994, long before Obama was in the Illinois state senate (let alone the U.S. Senate). Clearly, McCain meant Alito; but more than his grimaces, his teeth-gnashing, his rapid-fire blinking and all-around unpleasantness, moments like these, in which McCain's age and apparent confusion are on full display, are troublesome to say the least.

So are his flashes of anger, which look more and more like fits of desperation next to Obama's constantly cool demeanor. Take his nasty references to Obama's "eloquence," and his hyperbolic attack on ACORN, which he charged with "maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."

It was a relief to see Obama take the charge that he's been "palling around with terrorists" head on, deflating the accusation methodically, laying out Ayers' bipartisan associations on the Chicago board on which they both served, and saying, pointedly, "I think the fact that this has become such a(n) important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me."

It was more gratifying still to hear Obama's defense of Roe v. Wade, and his criticism of the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire case. And while he was disappointingly diplomatic in moments where progressives would have liked him to be aggressive -- skirting the question of Sarah Palin's qualifications and distancing himself from Congressman John Lewis, perhaps one of the few politicians truly qualified to compare the racist hatred of McCain's supporters to the era of George Wallace -- we have long realized not to expect that from Obama.

Anyway, in the pathetically narrow confines of presidential election politics, it seems to work. CNN's flash polls favored Obama across the board, with favorable impressions of him rising as impressions of McCain lowered.

Oddly enough, common consensus among the punditry was that the debate was Obama's worst and McCain's best. In searching for the line of the night, network candidates repeatedly cited McCain's rejoinder to Obama's charge that he voted "for four out of five of President Bush's budgets." "Senator Obama," McCain sneered, "I am not President Bush."

If that was McCain's strongest line of the night, his campaign is in trouble indeed.

Jane Hamsher from Firedoglake:

John McCain was in a tough spot tonight. He's tanking in the polls as he ramps up the personal attacks on Barack Obama, yet the base was clamouring for a knock-out punch. He had to throw them some red meat, even if it meant alienating the non-insane. There were landmines everywhere and McCain stepped in all of them. His smirking, snarky tone was decidedly unpresidential, and his bitter, whiny complaining performance probably satisfied no one.

On the other hand, it was Obama's best showing yet. His answers were poised, direct and sincere -- especially when he dealt with the difficult subjects of Ayers, John Lewis and the ugly mob that Sarah Palin has been stirring up at her public events. He addressed the accusations of being a terrorist head on, and didn't try to dismiss the ugliness of it. It's the first time I've heard him speak quite so unflinchingly about something so personal and vicious, and he did it in a way that was grounded and made him appear totally confident and calm in his conviction. It inspired a lot of confidence that he has the maturity and the gravitas to address really complex and difficult situations. He definitely showed grace under pressure.

But the most memorable moment of the debate -- the one that should come back to haunt McCain -- was when he sneeringly dismissed concerns for women's "health" with regard to abortion. Contempt for women just oozed out of every pore of his being, and it was no stretch to imagine the same man turning to his wife and saying "at least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you c**t."

I guess at some point that China doll down in Old Hong Kong turns into just another annoying slut, eh?

David Plouffe wrapped it up afterwards by saying "we came into the debate with two thirds of the American people thinking that John McCain is running a negative campaign, and Senator McCain spent 90 minutes trying to convince the other third."

McCain was a nasty, vicious glass of sour milk who can barely contain his temper and can't quite fathom what is happening to him.

Anybody who still thinks McCain isn't running a negative campaign is either in denial or wasn't watching.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel:

Elections have consequences. Couldn't get that cliche (cliches are also true) out of my muddled mind while watching the last -- yes, the very last (hurrah!) -- debate in this long and winding and extraordinary election.

The pundits were out of the gate -- even before the two spouses could get on the stage -- peddling and selling their wares and opinions. Who won? Was it a game-changer for McCain? McCain won the first quarter, the CNN pack agreed. By halftime, they brayed in virtual unison, it seemed like he needed treatment for anger management. Obama on the defensive was a dominant theme. It is true that given the opportunity to skewer McCain/ Palin's demagogic ads and rallies -- ones that have incited intolerable hate-filled xenophobia at a time of metastasizing economic pain -- Obama chose to stay sober and cautious. He played a safe and cool game tonight. At times, he would have made JFK seem overheated and rustic.

McCain showed how desperate he was. He had one punchy line: "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run to run against him, you should have run four years ago." But how far does one punchline take him? McCain is more right and wrong than Bush on core principles and issues -- from Iraq, Iran, North Korea (he protested taking it off the axis of evil list) and Russia, and he has pandered to a Republican rightwing base on energy, on immigration and on tax cuts for the most wealthy. He's even capitulated -- though Obama failed to point this out in tonight's debate -- on the CIA'S use of torture.

At a time when the collapse of the markets has left conservatism in rubble and market fundamentalism in freefall, is it any wonder that, as Harold Meyerson pointed out in his Washington Post column Wednesday, "a disoriented John McCain is wandering the moors howling about Bill Ayers?" McCain's attacks on Ayers & ACORN were jerky and hard to follow. (And it was hysterical for McCain to assert that ACORN was "perpetrating the greatest voter fraud in US history." As The Nation's Ari Berman blogged yesterday, "McCain and his Republican allies continue to make a big stink about voter fraud in an attempt to cover-up their own efforts at voter suppression. ... A new report by blogger Ari Rabin-Havt documents, "nearly a quarter of John MCain's 'Clean Election and Voter Fraud Committee' chaired by Warren Rudman and John Danforth have been involved in GOP voter suppression efforts or unfounded partisan claims of voter fraud." What's really at work is GOP panic about enormous Democratic (minority) turnout and a preemptive move to discredit the legitimacy and integrity of the election's outcome.)

Trying to change the subject is a tactic that's likely to have missed its moment. The McCain camp's full-frontal and cynical attempts to make this an election without issues, or to make this a referendum on national security and patriotism have been washed away by hard and fast reality: A financial crisis that includes some 10,000 foreclosures a day, nationalized banks and Washington Post cover stories with headlines like, "The End of American Capitalism?"

Two final thoughts. Thank god this is the last debate. We have been treated to some of the most trivial questioning and bad moderators in the recent history of presidential debates. Tonight, like his two predecessors in the general election debates, CBS's Bob Schieffer parroted the suffocating establishment consensus: How, in these times of financial crisis, will you tighten the government's belt? Obama stuck to "prioritizing" -- with healthy nods to the need to rebuild and reinvest in America. McCain gleefully, almost maniacally, talked of class warfare and freezes and hatchets and cuts and more cuts. And those accursed earmarks which he seems to believe are the main budget-busters. (Obama, fortunately, was quick to point out that earmarks are only .5 percent of the total federal budget.)

But the premise of this entire debate, as The Nation pointed out in our lead editorial last week, is "quite simply nuts." The fetish about budget-balancing has become especially nutso with our economy headed for a severe recession. With banks halting lending, businesses laying off workers, state and local governments slashing services and cutting jobs, homeowners facing mass evictions, and consumers cutting back, a massive federal stimulus is critical to avoid economic pain and calamity. We have to end our deficit paranoia. Pragmatism and reality -- not ideology -- are driving forces right now.

And while Obama was sober, serious and cautious tonight -- even flat at times -- I felt there were two moments when he spoke with care and muted passion, (reminiscent of his words in the last debate about health care a "right" all Americans should have and enjoy.) One moment came when Obama explained why he would not support a free trade agreement with Colombia. He spoke of Colombian labor leaders who had been targeted without prosecution. "We have to stand for human rights and stand against violence being perpetrated against workers just standing for their rights." And later when Obama spoke of the real life consequences of Supreme Court decisions -- in this case the story of Lilly Ledbetter and her fight, on behalf of all women, for equal pay for equal work. John McCain dismissed her case as just a "trial lawyer's dream."

It will take the people, the voters, the movements Obama has mobilized, aroused and energized in this extraordinary election to hold him accountable -- and to push him to be bolder. Reality will also drive him to be bolder -- if he wants to succeed. It can be done. What can't be done is getting blood from a stone. Tonight, McCain showed himseld to be a mean, sardonic and jerky man who is ill-suited to lead a nation in these perilous times.

Steven Rosenfeld:

The third and final presidential forum was the closest to a true debate and was the best format to date to contrast the candidates. Obama and McCain revealed differences in their temperaments, philosophies, priorities and approaches to governing. What was most striking to me was Obama's insistence that the country invest in long-term programs where benefits would accrue slowly but surely, whether the issue was energy, education, health care reform or reviving domestic manufacturing. McCain tried in vein to characterize That posture that as runaway spending and returning to big government -- the same conservative cliches Ronald Reagan used in the 1980s to criticize liberal Democratic governance. At one point, McCain called Obama "Sen. Government," a slip of the tongue that summarized this viewpoint.

The problem with McCain's philosophy is that it is divorced from the economic realities that have swept over the final weeks of the election. Big government is not just back, but it is being looked to by society's largest forces that historically have been most hostile to government: the business sector. The bailout of credit markets by the Bush Administration, Congress and European governments shows market forces have neither the resources, means or public trust to preserve western standards of living. All Americans who have lost some savings know this. Government is back and millions of people are hoping it is up to the task. McCain's conservative economics may be principled in right-wing circles, but they are awkwardly out of step with the current national realities and mood.

I don't know whether voters believe or trust Obama's many pronouncements; I'm not sure whether I trust all of his prescriptions. I know that no matter what candidates say during the "poetry" of the campaign that the "prose" of governing is different. But what is clear is that Obama is thinking in more long-term frames than McCain, and that larger viewpoint is what leadership -- in Washington, on Wall Street and in global security issues -- has sorely lacked for years, if not decades. When Americans think about their own selfish interests and concerns, I think they are going to turn to the candidate who speaks more about the consequences of our actions, about making sacrifices to invest in the future and about mixing personal responsibilities with government intervention.

If the ballots are counted fairly, it is hard to see how Obama will not become the next president.

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