McCain Undone By Affect And Temperament

Special Debate Edition

In the much-anticipated final presidential debate of the 2008 campaign season, the man who landed the greatest number of punches, say the commentators, ultimately lost the debate.  Despite the invocation of a terrorist, it was a plumber who may have been McCain's undoing. Salon's Joan Walsh explains it this way:

John McCain promised to kick Barack Obama's "you know what" on Wednesday night. He hinted that he'd bring up former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers and worse. Instead McCain bludgeoned Obama with Joe the Plumber, and the effect was more farce than fierce.

Indeed, one Joe the Plumber, "an apparently wealthy Toledo businessman who complained he'd pay more taxes under Obama's plan," according to Walsh, was cited repeatedly by McCain as the kind of regular guy who would suffer under several Obama proposals, ranging from income tax to health care. In fact, it was later discovered, Joe would only pay higher income taxes under Obama's if he netted $250,000 for himself, and would only incur a fine under Obama's health care plan if he was a large employer who refused to make "a meaningful contribution" to his employees' health care coverage.

But McCain just couldn't let go of Joe -- and then Obama got in on the act.

Live-blogging for Mother Jones, Johnathan Stein and Nick Baumann, initially began counting the JTP references, but by the half-hour mark, simply offered up this:

10:01: Joe the plumber Joe the plumber Joe the plumber Joe the plumber Joe the plumber Joe the plumber Joe the plumber Joe the plumber Joe the plumber.

10:05: Do you think Sen. McCain's advisers told him to speak directly to the American people, and McCain thought they said he should talk directly to an American person? Thus the to-the-camera addressing of JTP?

[...]

10:15: Turns out, the plumbers were the first union to endorse Obama...

"Barack Obama is the choice of the UA because he has always fought for working people throughout his career and will do the best job of bringing badly-needed change to Washington. Obama will help us keep existing jobs and work to develop new, higher paying jobs here in America, reform our health care system, fix our ailing schools and make sure that the pensions of our retirees are safe."

All this Joe stuff from MoJo's liveblogging boy team clearly irritated the magazine's live-Tweeting girl team of Laura McClure and Elizabeth Gettelman, who said via Twitter, in essence, enough about Joe; what about the much more accomplished Josephine the Plumber?

The plumbing of the depths of inanity rather than economy led The American Prospect's Dana Goldstein to sum up the debate this way on TAPPED:

Thank God these horse-and-pony shows are done with, truly. "Joe the Plumber," if you exist, bless your heart, but I've never experienced a more irritating gimmick than your insertion into this debate. The economic crisis? It has been boiled down by moderator after moderator this season into a contest on which candidate is the more convincing budget hawk. But has anyone ever heard of Keynes or FDR? Infrastructure and social spending is what will create jobs in a recession. Unfortunately, the lessons of history have never been major topics in these debates.

Greg Sargent of TPM Election Central puts it this way:

[C]onsider McCain's frequent evocation of Joe The Plumber. This attack from McCain was clearly labored over heavily by his aides. But it fell flat for a very simple reason: It didn't change the basic underlying policy disagreements between the two men. It didn't change the fact that people agree with Obama's solutions to our economic crisis, and reject McCain's ideas. In the face of that overwhelming reality, the constant evocation of Joe The Plumber just came across like a stunt.

Of course, Joe is not the man we came poised to hear about.  After weeks and months of accusations about the alleged role of a former member of the Weather Underground in Obama's career, we sat ready to hear the name "William Ayers" fall from McCain's lips.  In the first two debates, McCain failed to utter Ayers' name, instead allowing his running-mate to invoke it on the campaign trail, alleging that Barack Obama was "palling around with terrorists". (And do note the plural.)  Obama, before this debate, threw down, daring McCain to raise the issue "to my face." And so McCain did.  David Corn of Mother Jones recounts:

Prior to the debate, there was much chatter about whether McCain would play the Ayers card. Judging from video of his recent rallies, it appeared that his base was demanding blood on this front. But polls indicated that these sorts of attacks have been hurting McCain with in-the-middle voters. So he faced a tough decision: ignore Ayers and upset the diehards or accuse Obama of being a pal of a domestic terrorist and alienate the indies.

McCain and his strategists came up with a hybrid approach: take a shot on the Ayers front and combine it with a traditional political assault. "I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist," McCain huffed, but then he went on to say, "we need to know the full extent of that relationship." Huh? If you don't care about Ayers, why do you care about the relationship?

In The Washington Independent, Ari Melber, blogging at the debate site at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., says:

Asked about his running mate's false charge that Obama "palled around with terrorists," McCain offered an indignant non-sequitur. He demanded that Obama condemn Rep. John Lewis's criticism of incendiary rhetoric at GOP rallies, which McCain said was unfair because it likened his campaign to America's segregation era. "That, to me, was so hurtful," he intoned.  Yet within minutes, McCain busied himself with the guilt-by-association attacks.

Another line of attack pursued by McCain was his attempt to link Obama directly to ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.  As progressives have redoubled efforts to prevent the sort of voter disenfranchisement seen in Ohio and elsewhere during the 2004 presidential election, Republicans have focused on the voter registration efforts of ACORN, which is active in communities of color.  An acknowledged lack of quality control has led to false registrations filed in some states, usually at the hands of subcontractors who defrauded ACORN itself.  When McCain raised the issue, Obama dismissed it rather handily.  But on another question, Obama coyly challenged the ACORN and Ayers narratives by going after FOX News.  As Ari Melber, writing on this aspect for The Nation reports:

Standing beneath a dark blue campaign sign in the "spin room" at the Hofstra gym, Obama communications director Dan Pfeifer said the campaign had determined that Fox was a "powerful infrastructure whose goal is to drive a cultural schism in America." Pointing to the channel's "calculated" efforts to "push issues like ACORN and Bill Ayers," Pfeifer said the campaign will confront "anyone who seeks to advance a false argument about Obama." Some reporters at Fox are "fair and admirable," he added, but "they're the exception rather than the rule."

Despite all the drama in McCain's attempts to paint Obama as a less than savory character, McCain's real undoing likely came on a subject that has plagued nearly every American politician for more than 25 years -- abortion.  To please his base, McCain said he would appoint "strict constructionists" to the Supreme Court.  Then, apparently to please independent voters, he offered a disquisition on how he would adhere to no "litmus test" in appointing justices.  Pretty likely to tick off the base.  Then came his sneering comment about provisions for the health of a pregnant women in abortion law.  AlterNet's Don Hazen describes the moment:

Late in the debate was the clincher for McCain's demise. McCain lost it the most when discussing abortion, putting air quotes around "health of the woman," belittling women's health concerns as if it were a political slogan, This stage of the debate was infuriating, and will be remembered by millions of women. The notion that many women thought McCain to be pro-choice, is now ancient history.

At RH Reality Check, Emily Douglas gives us the McCain quote (remember the air quotes around "health of the mother") and explains:

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

The health exception [to late-term abortion bans] allows women who are physically or mentally compromised by pregnancy to protect themselves by terminating. This means "almost anything?" This is "extreme?" Since when does ensuring protection of the health of women -- many of them mothers - when discussing abortion access become something to challenge or argue against? It's a testament to the anti-choice movement that their positions are so extreme and punitive that they
need to resort to attacking women.

At the night's end, though, it seemed that McCain was undone more by his affect and temperament than any one thing he said.  As The American Prospect's Ezra Klein cracked wise in his live blog:

10:04: Someone is going to create a vicious video of McCain's eye roles, neck bulges, sighs, head tilts, death stares, and evident moments of gastrointestinal distress.

The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel adds, "[B]y halftime, punditocrats brayed in virtual unison, it seemed as if McCain needed anger management therapy."

Laura Rozen of War and Piece is more compassionate:

[O]ne can increasingly foresee McCain as a somewhat tragic figure, likely to be defeated in a way by his own party and the pressures to be his party's candidate and run his party's type of divisive, smear-filled, non-issue based negative campaign, against perhaps some of his own inclinations. McCain really comes across as increasingly embittered.

Despite the growing consensus that last night's debate was a win for Obama, The Progressive's Ruth Conniff isn't about to hedge her bets.  Live-blogging, she put it like this:

Obama: the biggest risk we could take right now is to adopt the same failed polices and the same failed politics we've seen over the last eight years and somehow expect a different result.

But the American voter just might fit this definition of insanity.

Or maybe not.

Obama didn't play to his base.  He remained unfazed when McCain took rhetorical shots, and delivered a performance that was so reserved as to be a bit of a snooze, thus shoring up the doubts his campaign has planted about his opponent's temper.  However dull it looked on screen, Obama's performance in this final debate may be remembered as quite masterful.

--Adele M. Stan

Adele M. Stan is executive editor of The Media Consortium's syndicated reporting project.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about John McCain. Visit JohnMcCain.NewsLadder.net for a complete list of articles on McCain.  And for the best progressive reporting on two critical issues, check out Immigration.NewsLadder.net and Healthcare.NewsLadder.net.

JohnMcCain.NewsLadder.net is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and created by NewsLadder.

Tags: 2008 elections, Barack Obama, hofstra, John McCain, John McCain NewsLadder, Newsladder, Politics, presidential debates, presidential election, The Media Consortium (all tags)

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