Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Final Debate

This was both John McCain’s best debate performance and Barack Obama’s worst. McCain was on the offense and fiery. Obama was a bit flat and what some call “professorial” in his responses. I was not loving what he was doing. Having said that, apparently the Undecideds were loving it just fine, giving the debate by a wide margin to Obama.

My thoughts right off the bat include the declaration that, like or dislike either man or his policies, neither is stupid. When they were haggling over who voted for the Colombian Free Trade agreement and Obama countered with, “..and that’s why I voted for the Peruvian Free Trade agreement,” I was immediately struck by the fact that I was not aware of either agreement, nor could I—on penalty of death—enumerate for you any aspect of any detail about them. And, unless you are a Hill staffer on the appropriate committee, I’m betting you can’t either. So let’s give these guys their due: they both have command of startlingly small details and nuances of issues we don’t even know are issues. The information both must be able to retain to speak remotely competently on these issues is staggering. (I’ll leave the issues of Sunni and Shia, Spain’s role in NATO, al Qaeda in Iran--and the fact that Sarah Palin's son has Down Syndrome not autism--out of it, for the benefit of McCain). Which leads to my next point: the President of the United States OUGHT to know all this stuff that we don’t. Does that make me an elitist? If so, I’ll gladly wear that badge. I have friends with whom I can drink beer. I have “mom” friends who love their kids, special needs or not. I don’t need to elect my friend.

Having said all that, I was freaking out on Obama for the first 30 minutes of the debate as Mac-n-Cheese took the offense and seemed to take him off-guard. Had McCain done that earlier on in the campaign instead of picking Palin as a gimmick, then suspending his campaign as a gimmick, then lurching from economic idea to economic idea as the crisis hit, then losing his complete credibility as he attempted to say how qualified Palin is for the job of POTUS, he might be ahead in the polls right now. Had the debate ended after half an hour, McCain would have had the “game changer” (a phrase that must be burned at the stake after this election) he so desperately was looking for. The turning point was Ayers and Lewis. McCain expressed his clearly faux dismay that John Lewis had made disparaging remarks about him and his rallies. He wanted Obama to repudiate Lewis’ remarks. Which Obama—and Lewis himself—already had the moment they became public. He then brought up Ayers. Those trend lines on the focus groups just went south all the way. Then Obama came back with how we can sit here and talk about how our feelings are hurt or we can spend the next 3 weeks talking about what matters to the American people. That's when Obama seemed to find his footing, and when McCain seemed to lose the plot in terms of his purpose in this debate.

They Ayers obsession is a mistake. The polls show it, the facts show it. Everybody in Chicago interested in improving public education--Democrat and Republican--has served with Bill Ayers at some point. He's been funded by the Annenbergs, major supporters of Reagan and McCain himself. He's on the faculty at the U of Chicago. So literally thousands of students have "palled around" with Ayers by McCain's definition. But McCain keeps going there, hoping to make something out of nothing. My favorite characterization of McCain's obsession with the Ayers thing comes from Wonkette: "You know how many figs John McCain gives about Bill Ayers? Not two of them, my friends! That is why he is honor-bound to discuss at length in tomorrow night’s debate how the hippie terrorist and Barack Obama were giving each other handjobs back in the 60s."

The Ayers line of attack is a mistake. To win, McCain has to convince people that Obama is risky and unsafe. The sad fact for John McCain in these debates and throughout the political theatrics of his campaign, is that Obama has managed to appear LESS RISKY than John McCain. Think about that. McCain's whole brand--before he destroyed it--was all about service and honor and you-can-sleep-soundly-knowing-my-steady-hand-is-at-the-tiller. That was precisely who John McCain was in the eyes of voters. Think about what he has had to do to himself --and I might add to the potential safety of our country (Palin.Palin.Palin)--to have now a majority of Americans see him as the less steady choice for President. I've personally never seen him as a safe choice in the least. But for those independents who did, his fall from grace has been profound; and this debate did nothing to reverse that.

If you watched on CNN you had a split screen for the entire debate, which was very informative and telling, as you could see each candidate speak while seeing the other's reaction. David Gergen called McCain's performance in the latter half of the debate, "an exercise in anger management" that was painful to watch, and I think that is what it comes down to for a lot of people. "Ready to lead" involves more than years on the job, more than medals on your uniform. It encompasses a whole set of tangibles and intangibles that tell someone watching you (whether in a job interview or in a presidential debate) whether you have the right combination of knowledge, skills, abilities and judgment to do the job before you. If you did not see the split screen debate you must; the visuals on screen are really something to behold, in terms of what they say about temperament and balance as well as policy.

In any case, you can now look forward to the Right attempting to deligitimize this election, by tying Obama to the ACORN fraud (photos of John McCain standing proudly with them a couple of years ago notwithstanding), to Ayers again, to anything that will allow them to whip up their minions into a frenzy. A word on ACORN: voter registration fraud is a truly serious offense. But there is a difference between voter registration fraud and voter fraud, which occurs when a person attempts to actually vote based on a fraudulent registration. My prediction is that we can all look forward to the Repugs, seeing the election falling from their grasp, start finding ways to deligitimize the results.

Once again, check ahead to make sure you are registered. For real.

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