Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Obama-McCain III: Wall of airquotes

Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain showed up tonight for the third presidential debate at the Mack Sports & Exhibition Center at Hofstra University on Long Island. The winner was Joe Wurzelbacher.

Wurzelbacher, perhaps the new hypothetical American, the Toledo plumber whom Obama met on the campaign trail was invoked twenty-five times tonight — twenty-one times by McCain. Never mind the audience of millions who watched the debate on television in the United States. Joe the Plumber was the judge and jury before whom McCain and Obama made their best final arguments on fitness to serve as president.

The verdict? Joe the Plumber reportedly went to bed shortly after the debate ended; he’ll no doubt hold a press conference in the morning. But we saw no game-changer, only the product of another furious reboot of the McCain campaign, evidence of a McCain Software Service Pack 2.1.5. There are still bugs in the code and the drop-dead ship date is three weeks from today.

McCain was stronger tonight, more visibly forceful in ways that worked for him and against him. He was more reliably aggressive and on-message than he was in the first two debates, but only just barely. For the most part he was flustered, he was evasive, he was defensive. He made faces and squirmed, rolled his eyes and arched his eyebrows. He acted like the guy in the Preparation H commercial who can't sit still.

M’girl Arianna Huffington got it right:

“McCain's reliance on angry attacks on Obama has been an unequivocal failure. But instead of course-correcting, he doubled down -- coming across as angrier and meaner than ever before. This debate was won on the reaction shots. Every time Obama spoke, McCain grimaced, sneered, or rolled his eyes. By contrast, every time McCain was on the attack, Obama smiled. It was like watching a split-screen double feature -- Grumpy Old Men playing side by side with Cool Hand Luke.”

And if word choice is indicative of a debater’s emotional baseline, McCain was apparently “angry”: he used the word at least five times — four times in the first ninety seconds of his opening comments at the debate.

McCain’s biggest problem is one of consistency — both his own and Obama’s. While a loudly floundering McCain has tried to pivot in response either to national crises or those of his own campaign, the Barack Obama we saw in the first debate was the same Barack Obama who showed up in Hempstead, L.I., tonight. Principled. Methodical. Passionate. Relaxed under fire. And that’s a problem for John McCain.

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For weeks now, the McCain campaign has resorted to character assassination and broad innuendo against Obama, trying for forever to connect him body & soul with William Ayers, a Chicago professor and former leader of the Weather Underground, the radical group that conducted bombings of domestic locations in the early 1970’s. Ayers served on a community board with Obama years after Ayers’ insane antics in the heat of the Vietnam War.

Once he knew about Ayers’ antiwar activities, Obama denounced them clearly, and did so more than once. But for a campaign increasingly empty of original ideas, Team McCain has used Obama’s passing acquaintance with Ayers as the basis for a campaign of guilt by association — a poisonous strategy that’s led to the ugliest kind of outbursts at McCain's rallies, and those of running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

McCain promised to make Ayers Issue #1 for this third debate of presidential finalists. For a man who prides himself in not telegraphing his punches, McCain was generous in spelling out the strategy beforehand: make William Ayers the centerpiece of his campaign for the duration.

When the subject of Ayers finally came up tonight — because Obama forced the issue, boxing McCain into saying to his face what he’d been saying in front of supporters at rallies, waving like red meat — McCain seemed to dismiss the whole business with Ayers. "Mr. Ayers, I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist," he said, pressing for an explanation of a non-relationship that Obama had thoroughly explained, cutting off oxygen to the rationale for a controversy of his own making.

But without question, McCain’s biggest gaffe of the evening wasn’t a gaffe at all but the distilling evidence of a fundamental misreading of the American people, a powerfully telling moment that may well have cost him many of the women voters he needs for even a chance at the presidency — mostly the white women voters he thought he could sway by picking Sarah Palin to accompany him on an increasingly quixotic campaign.

Discussing abortion, the two had the following exchange:

Obama: "With respect to partial-birth abortion, I am completely supportive of a ban on late-term abortions, partial-birth or otherwise, as long as there's an exception for the mother's health and life, and this did not contain that exception..."

McCain: " Just again, the example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. He's for the 'health' for the mother. You know, that's beenstretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.

"That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, "health."

McCain’s physical use of air quotes of insinuation around the word ‘health’ — as though it were a code word for something else — was emphatically reinforced with body language and the use of the word 'quote' itself: For McCain, the issue of the health of the mother was being used by the pro-choice crowd to justify abortion as a convenience, rather than a medical necessity. McCain’s tone and demeanor practically radiated the idea: the matter of abortion for the woman’s health was just more political sleight of hand, and not to be taken seriously.

The very idea that a senior United States senator could spend a quarter century in that deliberative body and so blithely dismiss a central issue of the reproductive rights debate, could be so emotionally tone-deaf to the critical issue of women’s health as to lard it with winks and innuendo, seems almost impossible to believe. Impossible but true: the health-in-airquotes moment may have finally sealed the electoral fate of John McCain like nothing else could.

If, as some have said, women voters are the pivotal American demographic in this year’s vote, they may well have decided themselves tonight, on the impact of that toweringly insensitive remark, that John Sidney McCain II will not be the president of the United States in 2008. Years from now, historians may look back and point to this night, that dismissive utterance, as the moment that he lost not only the debate, but also the election.

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There are still twenty-one days left for McCain to make his case. A week is a year is seventeen seconds in politics — whatever the metric is this week. But however much time there's left, there's not enough for another reinvention. John McCain said he had Barack Obama right where he wanted him. Trouble is, John McCain had John McCain right where Barack Obama wanted him.

There's clearly a level of desperation in the McCain campaign that has gone past the merely political. There is a mortal aspect to this thing now, the barely suppressed rage of the candidate and the thunderously bad advice of too many of the wrong handlers. The McCain campaign has begun to show the signs, the desperate strategies of a candidate for whom the words "last chance" have begun to reverberate in his ears, in the 3 o'clock in the morning that for John McCain right now is not just hypothetical but real.

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