Hillary Clinton was in the audience last night, and it’s not at all clear who she tried to put the hex on. Both candidates seemed at times more uncomfortable than they have before, but it was John McCain’s night.
McCain was more aggressive and clearer than he had been in the first two debates. He did what he had to do: draw contrasts between himself and Obama on a variety of domestic issues.
In the first thirty minutes of the debate, McCain hammered Obama on taxes. His biggest weapon was an Ohio plumber who drew a more revealing answer from Obama than any debate moderator has in the primaries or the preceding two presidential debates.
Joe Wurzelbacher is the Ohio plumber who caught Obama off guard last Sunday. Wurzelbacher, who wants to buy the business he has worked for, asked Obama why his tax plan would raise the plumber’s taxes.
According to news reports, Wurzelbacher told Obama, “I’m getting ready to buy a company that makes $250,000 to $280,000 a year," but "[y]our new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?"
Wurzelbacher’s question drew an answer that revealed more about Obama’s liberal class-warfare philosophy than any debate moderator has all year. Obama said, "It’s not that I want to punish your success," then adding, "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance for success, too … When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody."
Again and again, McCain repeated the “spread the wealth around” line, mocking Obama effectively for his plan to raise taxes in these tough economic times. McCain scored heavily, and — characteristically — Obama did very poorly in the unscripted moments.
McCain did — mildly — what his handlers and some Congressional leaders had promised: he asked about the campaign charges that Obama was choosing to associate with former terrorist William Ayers. McCain said voters deserved to know the full story and accused Obama of launching his political career in Ayers’ living room. He said it dismissively, saying he didn’t care much about an old washed-up terrorist.
On offense, McCain simply said the public needs to know the full story about Obama’s connections not only to Ayers but also to ACORN — the “community organizing” group that is being investigated for voter registration fraud in states from Nevada to Ohio.
Obama was shaken, denying that Ayers was connected to his campaign and — for the moment cornered — said that Ayers wouldn’t be advising him in the White House.
McCain scored again when Obama went back to his campaign theme that McCain would be another George Bush. McCain said, “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”
Another McCain attack succeeded when both candidates were talking about the merits of their running mates and against their opponent’s. Obama said Biden, “…has some of the best foreign policy credentials of anybody…”
McCain hit that precisely, as we have been asking him to, saying Biden’s long experience is in being consistently wrong on foreign policy issues. McCain said, “I think that Joe Biden is qualified in many respects, but I do point out that he’s been wrong on many foreign policy and national security issues, which is supposed to be his strength. He voted against the first Gulf War. He voted against it, and obviously we had to take Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait or it would have threatened the Middle Eastern oil supply. In Iraq, he had this cockamamie idea about dividing Iraq into three countries. We’re seeing Iraq united as Iraqis. It’s tough, hard — but we’re seeing them — we’re now about to have an agreement for status of forces in Iraq coming up.”
The atmospherics worked against McCain. His eyes were obviously bothering him under the lights, so he was blinking almost manically at times. He often glared, either at Obama or at moderator Bob Schieffer. Obama was shaken and uncertain many times in the debate, but never lost his cool.
McCain took advantage of Obama’s unease, praising him for eloquence and pointing out that Obama’s carefully-parsed words often conceal his out-of-the-mainstream opinions. Obama is the lawyer, arguing fine points. McCain speaks clearly, as a leader must.
But McCain dropped the ball on Supreme Court appointments. Asked by Schieffer if he’d not nominate a justice who supported Roe v. Wade, McCain took an odd turn. McCain said he’d not impose any litmus test on Supreme Court nominations and spoke about the “Gang of 14” which he championed to prevent Republicans from imposing a simple majority vote for judicial nominations.
McCain is unquestionably pro-life: he spoke eloquently about his family and how Sarah Palin knows first-hand about caring for special-needs children. He attacked Obama for his Illinois legislature votes against bills requiring medical care for infants that survive abortion. But why didn’t McCain simply say he’d not nominate judges who supported Roe v. Wade? Why did he emphasize the fact that he’d voted for Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, two of the most hard-core liberals serving on the high court?
Obama was more direct on his philosophy — reiterated often by running mate Joe Biden — that judges should be chosen on an ideological basis. Saying he agreed with McCain that there should be no litmus test for judicial nominations, Obama said that judges should be chosen for their ideas of “fairness and justice.” Which means he’d only appoint more Ginsburgs and Breyers.
Obama said he believes the Constitution contains a right to privacy. He said he’d support limits on third trimester abortions if they had exceptions for the mother’s health.
McCain jumped on this, arguing — correctly — that the courts have stretched the “mother’s health” exception to mean almost anything.
Obama played the evening cautiously, like a football coach protecting a three-point lead in the last two minutes of the game, trying to control the ball and run out the clock. McCain’s two-minute offense was highly effective. But the clock is winding down. McCain is on Obama’s twenty-yard line and a field goal won’t be enough.
Unlike NFL football, there’s no overtime in this game. Obama’s lead in the polls is soft and will shrink markedly in the next few days. McCain can win unless Obama can run out the clock.
*Cartoon by Brett Noel