Calm and Steady Wins the Race

McCain did well in the final debate, but not well enough to matter.

John McCain

At the third and final presidential debate, the candidates finally got around to addressing America’s most pressing question: What does Joe Wurzelbacher want? Wurzelbacher, a plumber, was captured on video over the weekend at a rally discussing tax policy with Barack Obama. McCain used the exchange as a jumping-off point for his charge that Obama’s tax plan would hurt small-business owners like Joe—forever to be known as “Joe the Plumber” (which infuriates Bob the Builder). This set off an arms race in which both candidates tried to wrap their arms around Joe. McCain and Obama both addressed Joe so often in talking about their tax and health care plans that the debate may as well have been held next to the breakfront in his living room.

As it was, McCain and Obama sat at a desk with moderator Bob Schieffer, which at first made it look as if they were applying for a joint loan application. (Sorry gentlemen, only one of you can rent the big white house.) It was a tense debate in which McCain, behind in the polls and with less than three weeks before Election Day, tried to find some way to halt Obama’s momentum. He did well, but it wasn’t good enough. Obama was calm, in control, and won the debate.

McCain has been portraying himself as a fighter in recent days, and he came to the debate spoiling for one. From his first mention of Joe the Plumber, he went after Obama’s plan to redistribute wealth through the tax code, and pressed his charge that he would press hidden fines on small-business owners who didn’t sign up for health insurance. He talked about Obama’s connections to unrepentant terrorist William Ayers and ACORN. He ineffectively shorthanded his own policy ideas, but McCain was nevertheless able to fully articulate Obama’s votes on abortion as a state legislator in Illinois. Even the arrows in the eagle above both candidates were pointed at Obama.

McCain had some strong moments, such as when he distanced himself from President Bush and when he stood up for the majority of his supporters at his rallies. But his attacks came like out of a Gatling gun. He wasn’t particularly mean, but his approach had a scattered feel to it. None of the many shots felt like they did any real damage. At times he was downright snippy, needling Obama about his lack of travel in the southern hemisphere and rolling his eyes at an Obama answer.

Obama was nearly flawless in beating back the two hardest attacks. He explained his relationship with William Ayers and the community organization ACORN in measured tones that offered no hint of slipperiness. When he discussed his votes on abortion, he also made a compelling case for why he had voted against a bill that would have mandated medical care to a child born from a botched abortion. (A law was already in place that did so.)

McCain effectively highlighted the philosophical differences with Obama on taxes and government spending, but often, he was in such a hurry that his tendency to use shorthand undermined his case. He rattled off policies in bullet points—skipping from taxes to trade and back again. He interjected thoughts as they occurred to him on the fly. McCain’s biggest flaw may have been that he did nothing to link to the message of his new stump speech: that he would be a fighter in Washington for regular people. McCain used the word fighter about 15 times in his speeches before the debate. He didn’t mention the word once in the debate. If that’s his closing argument, he should have let the 40 million or so people watching in on it.

McCain needed to court undecided voters by walking them carefully through the thought process that leads to their decision to vote for him. Obama was far better at doing that, laying out the specific points of his plan with the kind of detail Hillary Clinton used to offer in her debates. He also had the stylistic points down, talking to the camera when addressing voters. When McCain talked about special-needs children, Obama interjected to point out that such assistance didn’t square with McCain’s promise to cut spending across the board. The two then engaged in another round of philosophical discussion, but the point Obama scored was appearing as master of the material.

Where Obama was weakest was in responding to McCain’s charge about Obama supporter and Georgia Rep. John Lewis. The civil rights hero had said McCain’s campaign reminded him of segregationist George Wallace. Obama could have said something big and shown some of that capacity for healing and bridge building that he talks about. Instead he ducked the question at first and didn’t address Lewis’ remarks. It felt tiny. Pressed, Obama said he didn’t agree with Lewis’ categorization. Obama also ducked—as he has so many times before—getting specific about the budget he will inherit. He boasted about offering spending cuts to pay for his new proposals, but that does nothing to address the budget problems that he’s inheriting that will require sacrifice. He was helped by McCain’s nutty pledge to balance the budget in four years. Given the size of the deficit, military commitments, the rising cost of health care, and McCain’s tax-cut promises, that claim is simply unrealistic.

With 19 days of campaigning before Election Day, John McCain has no more big chances to change the dynamic of the race. He didn’t get what he needed at Hofstra University, and Barack Obama did nothing to offer him an opportunity. The third and final debate offered no new fuel for Republicans trying to raise doubts about Obama. In fact, his performance seemed to confirm what McCain told a voter at one of his town-hall meetings last week: You don’t have to be scared about Obama.