David Rodeback's Blog
Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Notes on The Third Presidential Debate
This one goes to John McCain over Barack Obama, but it was not the overwhelming performance McCain needed.
Tonight's third and last presidential debate focused on domestic policy. The moderator was Bob Schieffer. Both candidates and the moderator were seated at a table, because it was a "round table" format, as opposed to the town hall format of the second debate and the traditional podiums of the first. I had one frustration with Schieffer, which I will mention a little later. Other than that, I thought he allowed for reasonably thorough discussion of issues.
In my earlier post today I described how hard -- and how -- I thought Senator John McCain would have to hit Senator Barack Obama tonight in order to have a fighting chance to win on November 4. I pointed out that this is the last time Senator McCain can speak at length to the American people with Senator Obama in the room, and I explained why that matters.
In my judgment, Senator McCain won this debate. He didn't score all the points; for example, I'm not happy with either candidate's health care plan -- whatever the truth of each may actually be -- but Obama shredded McCain's more than McCain shredded Obama's. He had Obama cornered a few times, to the point that Obama had either to lie or to change the subject -- but don't expect the Big Media Acronyms (BMA) to pick out the lies. McCain rebutted some of them.
When you start the fourth quarter of a football game down by two touchdowns, it's not enough to outscore your opponent in the fourth quarter by a field goal or a touchdown. You can win the fourth quarter and still lose the game. That's what happened tonight: McCain won the fourth quarter -- this debate -- but he is now likely to lose the game.
I don't intend a comprehensive account of the debate, but I do have some notes.
The first topic was economic plans. It was mostly the same old stuff. Obama wants a tax cut for 95 percent of Americans, which is a mathematical impossibility, since far fewer than 95 percent -- less than 70 percent -- actually pay income taxes. Could we please have a candidate who can do arithmetic? McCain hemmed and hawed and fumbled and backtracked for a while, before finally settling into a groove and nailing Obama on redistributing wealth. Obama wants -- said McCain, and Obama himself said this the other day to the now-famous Joe the Plumber -- Obama wants the government to take Joe the Plumber's money, give it to Obama, and let him spread it around in accordance with his ideas of fairness. In this context, McCain's also asked an excellent question, ""Why would you want to increase anyone's taxes right now?"
The next topic was the deficit, and Schieffer asked if they were both ignoring reality by not scaling back their plans. Obama made a nice speech about the problem of living beyond our means and the need to embrace responsibility -- for corporations, government, and individuals. McCain promised a selective spending freeze and said he would cut ethanol subsidies and some other subsidies that distort the market. At one point he said to Obama -- who keeps harping on "the failed policies of the last eight years" -- "I'm not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
Things got stupid in the third segment; I blame Schieffer, who wanted to talk about allegations that both campaigns have gotten dirty. McCain was pretty weak here, with phrases like "so hurtful" and "very unfair" and (to Obama) "you didn't repudiate those remarks." He briefly cornered Obama on a couple of recent dirty points, and Obama evaded the apparent rhetorical necessity to repudiate his side's slime. But this is all terribly misguided. It's time to stop asking, Is is negative? and start asking, Is it true? It is not dirty campaigning to tell the truth about your opponent's proposals and record.
At least McCain defended the people at his rallies, of course excluding the bad behavior of one or two who have come for the BMA to represent entire crowds at Republican rallies. But this whole topic is pathetic, weak, and narcissistic. I'm a political junkie who cares about this race, and I almost turned off the debate at this point. I wonder how many other people really turned it off.
After spending too much time on Bill Ayers, McCain and Obama finally talked about ACORN. McCain said ACORN may be perpetrating "one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country" and noted that Obama recently gave them $832,000. Obama initially lied and said that his only involvement with ACORN was once representing them in a case in Illinois; McCain had a few details to rebut this. But it was too little and came too late in the debate for full effect.
Schieffer asked both candidates, "Why would the country be better off if your running mate became president instead of his [the other's] running mate?" Obama touted Joe Biden's foreign policy credentials, which are pretty much a bad joke after the vice presidential debate, but he resisted saying anything negative about Sarah Palin, even when Schieffer asked directly if she's qualified to be president. McCain said Palin is "a reformer through and through," "a breath of fresh air," and that "she understands reform." He pointed out that Biden has been wrong on numerous critical foreign policy and national security issues over the years, though foreign policy is supposedly his strength.
Schieffer asked how much each candidate thought we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil in the next president's first term. Neither candidate put a number on it. McCain said we could end our dependence on foreign oil (not including Canada's) in seven to ten years; Obama mentioned ten years. McCain pointed out that Obama said we should "look at" offshore drilling; McCain said, essentially, we need to do more than look at it. We need to do it.
Health care came up. The point here probably goes to Obama, who can be very smooth, but I don't really believe either candidate's proposal -- not when the candidate himself describes it, and not when the respective opponent does it.
They wrangled about abortion for a while, and then about education. As to the latter, Schieffer framed the question well: We spend more money on education per capita than any other nation, and we're behind most of the modern world in math and science. What do we do about it? Obama seemed for a while to be opposing the teachers unions, but he was actually fairly careful not to cross them on critical points. For example, he favors competition "inside the public schools" -- which is scarcely competition at all. McCain spoke favorable of vouchers and school choice. Both extolled the virtues of consigning bad teachers to other lines of work.
Finally, I noted a few recurring patterns, not including Obama's smirk and McCain's satisfied smile. Several times in the debate, McCain asked Obama, Why do we always have to spend more money? A few times he added a note about Obama's tendency to think government is the solution to problems and his apparent fondness for big government. Several times during the debate, Obama tried to analyze McCain's campaign, and quoted McCain's staff and advisors as if their words were McCain's own. I thought this was fairly transparent and ineffective, not to mention condescending, but I don't how how that plays to the masses.
The best slip of the evening -- and it was either a real slip or an implausibly brilliant bit of acting -- was McCain accidentally calling Obama "Senator Government."
Conclusion -- or Maybe Just "Recap"
I've seen an earlier poll or two suggesting that viewers gave McCain a clear victory tonight. I'm sure the BMA will come up with some polls showing the opposite. I already indicated that I think McCain won. But, I repeat, it isn't enough to win the fourth quarter by a touchdown if you were down by two touchdowns at the end of the third quarter. McCain wasn't bad tonight, and Obama wasn't dominant or captivating, but it's too little, too late for John McCain . . . unless one of two things happens: a miracle or a national tragedy.
No one in his right mind -- I exclude some kooks on both sides who think a good terrorist attack would help the election -- no one in his right mind hopes for a national tragedy. I happen to believe in miracles, but it's a lot safer to do things so that a miracle is not required than it is to depend on just the right miracle happening at just the right time because you didn't do your job.
I'm not saying any of us should abandon the campaign. I think we should all tell all our friends and relatives what we think, in the hope of persuading some of them to vote for McCain and for whomever is running for Congress in their districts on the Republican ticket. Regrettably, for more than a few of them, including Utah's Third District, this will involve voting for a shallow opportunist who happens to be a Republican, because we can't afford a Democratic super-majority on Capitol Hill. Donating to Senator McCain's campaign or to a local congressional campaign will still help at this late date, too.
But Obama has the ball and the lead. McCain is out of time outs. The clock is ticking, and all Obama has to do is not fumble the ball and kneel down a couple of times. He doesn't even need a first down. McCain cannot hope for any favors from the striped shirts or the timekeeper.
I'll get back to you with a description of the increased political activity I think we all must engage in during the next few years, no matter who wins in November, but that is not tonight's topic.
David Rodeback comments (10/16/08):
It wasn't just me. I've talked to several people in different parts of the country this morning -- during the course of doing my day job -- who turned off the debate during the whining-about-dirty-campaigning section and never turned it back on again.
Copyright 2008 by David Rodeback.