Here is my “two cents” on last night’s final presidential debate. In general, I would say that John McCain came off as the better debater, more forceful, but ultimately failed to convince. While he did a formidable job of distancing himself from President Bush with a few good one-liners and his senate record, ironically, he was undone by the dissonance within his own campaign.
By dissonance, I mean the difference between what McCain thinks he stands for and the type of race that his campaign is running. When Bob Schieffer, who has the weakest Sunday political show but so far is the best debate moderator, opened the door to “dirty” campaign tactics and Bill Ayers, McCain fell for the trap. Obama had been looking for it all week with the “tell it to my face” dare. This is where the dissonance started. McCain said that he didn’t care about the washed up Ayers, but that the association tells us something about Obama. Soft ball, swing, and Obama hit it out of the park:
In fact, Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Sen. McCain’s campaign over the last two or three weeks. This has been their primary focus.
Obama then went on to explain this “association” with Ayers included a former appointee of Ronald Reagan and other prominent figures of the Chicago establishment, pointing out to McCain that the entire discussion, “says more about your campaign than it says about me.”
Notice also that given the opportunity, Obama didn’t attack Sarah Palin when asked whether she was qualified. He was generous,
You know, I think it’s — that’s going to be up to the American people. I think that, obviously, she’s a capable politician who has, I think, excited the — a base in the Republican Party. And I think it’s very commendable the work she’s done on behalf of special needs. I agree with that, John.
Contrast those statements with Sarah Palin accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists”, and the majority of the public believing that McCain is running the dirtier race. Thus, by saying that the Obama campaign is worse and justifying Palin’s nasty attacks because Obama wouldn’t do more town hall meetings, McCain is utterly unconvincing. You get the feeling that McCain is running two parallel campaigns: one where he’d like to portray himself with his own self image of honor and experience and another starring Sarah Palin in a completely separate no-holds-barred campaign.
The most basic example of dissonance is that John McCain is running for president but talks like a congressman. This may have worked for Biden in the vice presidential debate to highlight his vastly superior grasp of the issues to Sarah Palin, but for John McCain to focus so heavily on pork barrel spending and earmarks — the language and modes of legislating – is like talking about the rules of basketball during the Super Bowl.
Another annoying example of dissonance was McCain’s claim that he was going to freeze spending. Obama caught him on this once when McCain said Palin would work on new programs directed at special needs children. How can you have new programs if you’re freezing spending? But Obama should have been more forceful. How can you have a $700 billion bailout and freeze spending at the same time? Or the $300 billion of which McCain proposes for mortgages? When McCain mocked Obama for saying that we need to spread the wealth, what does McCain think that he would be asking Americans to do with his $300 billion for mortgages? Isn’t that asking the American taxpayers to share their money to help out with mortgages?
McCain was correct to press Obama on the “no brainer” of trade, though, he sounded awkward in accusing Obama of never having been to South America (has he met Sarah Palin?), but I wish Obama had been more courageous and told McCain that in a recession, the danger isn’t taxes, but freezing spending.
The final closing statements also revealed something about the candidates. Obama, who had given moving speeches earlier during the primaries, had almost nothing moving to say. Where was his fire, his passion, his call for change? He is up in the polls and wants to spend the final weeks looking calm, collected, and safe. He wasn’t going to raise his voice. I wished I had seen a little more from him.
Meanwhile, McCain only added to that dissonance between his personal message and that of his campaign. He is behind in the polls and is looking for a game changer. This was his final chance at a closing argument on why we should vote for him and not for “that one”. Of his seemingly patriotic words about serving his country, what rang in my ears was the xenophobic part about McCain being an elite legacy in “a long line of McCains that have served our country for a long time”. Is Obama less of an American because of his paternal ancestors, the ones that carry the name “Obama”? How about me with my foreign sounding name? Compare McCain defending Obama as not being an Arab but a decent American to saying that there is a long line of McCains in American history. Or his earlier cheap shot in bringing up the FARC terrorist group in an unrelated discussion on trade, as if Obama’s opposition to a free trade agreement with Colombia is about Obama being easy on terrorists. The dissonance is striking.
Finally, there was a tone, reflected in those final words and prevalent throughout the debate, of superiority and indignation that reminded me of Hillary Clinton in the primaries. (Remember Bill saying that a race between Hillary and McCain would be between two Americans who truly loved their country?) Whereas Hillary seemed offended that Obama would dare to challenge her rightful place on the top of the ticket and not wait his turn, McCain comes off as dumbfounded that Obama would even have the gall to stand on the same stage as someone with his foreign policy and maverick background. To a white boy like me, this comes off as the quintessential generational battle or a military hierarchy. But for Colbert King, these gestures and tones feel painfully offensive to African Americans.
It wasn’t enough for McCain to engage Obama on the issues, pointing out where the two of them differed and why. In his answers and interventions, McCain took the added step of assuming an air of superiority — as if Obama were an inferior, out of his depth, trying to go where he doesn’t belong.
McCain was no doubt trying to portray Obama as an upstart. But in doing so, he adopted an attitude familiar to people of color who find themselves in the company of folks who don’t want them there.
You hear yourself described as nice but naïve, well-intentioned but lacking an informed opinion, energetic but without sound judgement — the kind of subjective but devastating characterizations that are career-enders.
McCain knew what he was doing. In the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton knew what she was doing, too. And there’s hardly a person of color who doesn’t recognize the tactic. It’s one that emerges when all other blocking attempts fail.
There’s more at stake than the election. Respect must count for something. A younger generation was also watching tonight.
For the sake of those coming behind him, Obama should have called McCain on the condescension, lies and distortions and let him know that they will no longer be ignored or tolerated.
They are part and parcel of a tactic that has worked well for McCain’s generation. Obama should have told him that those days are over.
Personally, I trust that those weren’t John McCain’s intentions. I believe that McCain has tried to temper his campaign, sometimes too late. My favorite example was yesterday when a McCain spokesperson said that McCain refused to allow his campaign to attack Obama on Jeremiah Wright, arguing that McCain was taking the high road, and then detailing why Obama’s relationship to Jeremiah Wright was subject to attack. He got to both bring up Jeremiah Wright and to say that they weren’t going to bring up Jeremiah Wright. This conduct between candidate and campaign reflects McCain’s essential problem leading up to and into the debate: McCain was unable to make a convincing impression that the McCain speaking during the debate was entirely different from his Republican party, Sarah Palin included, out on the campaign trail.
For something more objective than my view, visit the Washington Post’s debate fact checker, showing where both Obama and McCain stretched the truth or check out the review in the free-trade leaning The Economist.