Last Thursday, during a McCain campaign town hall meeting in Denver, one participant stood up and challenged the GOP presidential candidate: "When are you going to take the gloves off?" His fellow McCain supporters in the downtown hotel roared with approval. "How about Tuesday night?" John McCain replied, referring to his second debate with Obama.
How about not? The McCain campaign in recent days has pumped up its effort to delegitimize Barack Obama, with its top strategist apparently calculating that McCain cannot vanquish Obama if the election is about issues. At a recent rally in a California suburb, GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin declared, "Our opponent...is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." (This was a reference to Obama's past association with Bill Ayers, the former Weather Underground radical who became an education expert). And on Monday, McCain delivered a blistering attack on Obama that was loaded with inaccuracies and distortions. So one expectation among the politerati was that McCain would continue swinging--or thrashing--at the second debate. Work in Bill Ayers. Refer to Jeremiah Wright. Depict Obama as shifty and untrustworthy.
That did not happen. McCain, trailing Obama in the polls, mainly trained his fire on policy matters. He did continue to hurl misrepresentations at Obama. (As the debate proceeded, I received 40 emails from the Obama campaign making this point.) For instance, McCain once again claimed that Obama has voted 94 times to raise taxes, a charge that has been widely debunked by various factchecking outfits. But there was no frontal assault on Obama's character--and only one or two slight digs on his qualifications. The debate was more high-minded than anticipated. But it demonstrated a tough reality for McCain: he is out of sync with his own campaign. He cannot pull the trigger, when his advisers seem to believe a machine gun blast is needed.
Obama and his campaign are fully integrated. He calls for a break from the past eight years on both domestic and foreign fronts and famously urges fundamental change. As a new face--and a black man--he sure does represent change. He is his message. And his campaign for over a year and a half has not had to go through any strategic lurches or had to reconfigure either its candidate or its core pitch. That's not true on the McCain side. His campaign has been nothing but lurches. And the most recent one--a turn toward even more negative campaigning--undercuts his old and now practically worn-out reputation as a straight-talking maverick. So come Debate II, McCain was confronting a tough choice: damned if he does (go negative) and stalled if he doesn't.
Deciding to forego the nasty stuff, McCain relied on policy differences to hammer Obama. The problem: Obama's policy prescriptions are not unpopular.
In response to the first question--posed by a member of the audience--Obama defended the Big Finance bailout bill, but he excoriated the "failed economic policies" of the Bush administration, tied McCain the Deregulator to said policies, blasted the corrupt chief execs of AIG, and called for a middle-class "rescue package," involving tax cuts, health care reform, energy independence, and an infrastructure rebuilding plan.
That didn't leave McCain much of an opening. As he has done in the past, McCain tried to portray wasteful Washington spending as the main evil in the land. His big news of the night was to propose that the federal government ought to buy up bad mortgages so people could keep their homes. But for some reason, when McCain tried to appeal to Americans worrying about their economic security, he didn't use the phrase "middle class." (McCain preferred to use a less engaging term: "middle-income.")
McCain took a punch at Obama, a top recipient of contributions from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae executives, for supposedly encouraging both institutions to make "all these risky loans." (Factcheckers, start your engines.) Obama countered that McCain's own campaign manger, Rick Davis, had been a lobbyist for Freddie Mac. McCain blasted earmark spending, noting that Obama had requested $3 million for a projector for a planetarium in Chicago. Obama pushed back: earmark spending accounts for $18 billion a year, cutting back these requests is fine, but McCain wants to hand a $300 billion tax cut to corporations and wealthy individuals.
There was not much point scoring--certainly not for McCain who probably did, as the pundits said, need to make up ground. When moderator Tom Brokaw asked each to say how they would prioritize health care reform, energy independence, and entitlement reform, McCain gave the standard political line: we can do them all at once. Obama, looking decisive, said, energy had to come first, then health care. And he placed education in his third spot. In this exchange, he came across as the adult in the room. When McCain derided Obama for being a tax raiser, Obama calmly and forcefully explained that he proposes to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans and that only a small percentage of small business would be affected by the tax hikes he advocates for the well-off.
One of the most interesting--and perhaps telling--exchanges of the evening occurred when Lindsey Trella, an audience member, asked, "Do you believe health care should be treated as a commodity?" Obama went first and explained his proposal and made McCain's health care plan appear reckless:
If you've got health care already, and probably the majority of you do, then you can keep your plan if you are satisfied with it. You can keep your choice of doctor. We're going to work with your employer to lower the cost of your premiums by up to $2,500 a year. And we're going to do it by investing in prevention. We're going to do it by making sure that we use information technology so that medical records are actually on computers instead of you filling forms out in triplicate when you go to the hospital. That will reduce medical errors and reduce costs.
If you don't have health insurance, you're going to be able to buy the same kind of insurance that Sen. McCain and I enjoy as federal employees. Because there's a huge pool, we can drop the costs. And nobody will be excluded for pre-existing conditions, which is a huge problem. Now, Sen. McCain has a different kind of approach. He says that he's going to give you a $5,000 tax credit. What he doesn't tell you is that he is going to tax your employer-based health care benefits for the first time ever. So what one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away. He would also strip away the ability of states to provide some of the regulations on insurance companies to make sure you're not excluded for pre-existing conditions or your mammograms are covered or your maternity is covered. And that is fundamentally the wrong way to go. In fact, just today business organizations like the United States Chamber of Commerce, which generally are pretty supportive of Republicans, said that this would lead to the unraveling of the employer-based health care system. That, I don't think, is the kind of change that we need.
McCain then explained his plan:
I want to give every American a $5,000 refundable tax credit. They can take it anywhere, across state lines. Why not? Don't we go across state lines when we purchase other things in America? Of course it's OK to go across state lines because in Arizona they may offer a better plan that suits you best than it does here in Tennessee. And if you do the math, those people who have employer-based health benefits, if you put the tax on it and you have what's left over and you add $5,000 that you're going to get as a refundable tax credit, do the math, 95 percent of the American people will have increased funds to go out and buy the insurance of their choice and to shop around and to get -- all of those people will be covered except for those who have these gold-plated Cadillac kinds of policies.
He did not effectively address Obama's criticism of his approach. And when Brokaw asked the pair whether health care in America is "a privilege, a right, or a responsibility," McCain went with "a responsibility," adding, "But government mandates, I--I'm always a little nervous about that." His was not an eloquent reply. Obama then answered the question: "I think it should be a right for every American. In a country as wealthy as ours, for us to have people who are going bankrupt because they can't pay their medical bills -- for my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they're saying that this may be a pre-existing condition and they don't have to pay her treatment, there's something fundamentally wrong about that."
Throughout this back and forth, Obama displayed a command of policy, and he also connected with anyone who has ever been pissed off with their health insurance company. McCain seemed rooted in free-market ideology--which ain't looking so good these days.
On foreign policy issues, the discourse was a replay of the previous debate. McCain hit Obama for having not supported the so-called surge in Iraq, claiming this demonstrated that Obama did not have the judgment to be commander in chief. "We don't have time for on-the-job training, my friends," McCain said. Obama, though, gave no ground. With some steel in his tone, he replied:
Well, you know, Sen. McCain, in the last debate and today, again, suggested that I don't understand. It's true. There are some things I don't understand. I don't understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us. That was Sen. McCain's judgment and it was the wrong judgment. When Sen. McCain was cheerleading the president to go into Iraq, he suggested it was going to be quick and easy, we'd be greeted as liberators. That was the wrong judgment, and it's been costly to us.
Wrong on the surge versus wrong on the whole war? Clear advantage to neither. Which is a loss for McCain, given that he's supposed to have an edge on national security matters. And when McCain accused Obama of dangerously suggesting that the United States ought to be prepared to attack al Qaeda targets within Pakistan, Obama fought back: "Sen. McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears and, you know, I'm just spouting off, and he's somber and responsible. Sen. McCain, this is the guy who sang, "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran," who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don't think is an example of speaking softly. This is the person who, after we had -- we hadn't even finished Afghanistan, where he said, "Next up, Baghdad." McCain dismissed the "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" quip as "joking with an old veteran friend, who joked with me about Iran."
For an evening billed as The Night McCain Attacks, Obama landed as many blows as did McCain. Neither took any wild swings. But Obama, leading in the polls nationally and within swing states, didn't have to. He is going smooth and steady. He was practically cruising in this debate--slow and calm. He exuded confidence. McCain was no slouch. He just couldn't overcome a high-performing foe.
In his final remarks, McCain talked mainly about himself:
I have spent my whole life serving this country. I grew up in a family where my father was gone most of the time because he was at sea and doing our country's business. My mother basically raised our family. I know what it's like in dark times. I know what it's like to have to fight to keep one's hope going through difficult times. I know what it's like to rely on others for support and courage and love in tough times. I know what it's like to have your comrades reach out to you and your neighbors and your fellow citizens and pick you up and put you back in the fight.
That's what America's all about. I believe in this country. I believe in its future. I believe in its greatness. It's been my great honor to serve it for many, many years. And I'm asking the American people to give me another opportunity and I'll rest on my record, but I'll also tell you, when times are tough, we need a steady hand at the tiller and the great honor of my life was to always put my country first.
It was a reference to his POW experience. Nothing as explicit as his convention speech, which ended with a vivid description of that episode--but still it was John McCain talking about John McCain.
Obama ended the evening talking about what's going on:
The question in this election is: are we going to pass on that same American dream to the next generation? Over the last eight years, we've seen that dream diminish. Wages and incomes have gone down. People have lost their health care or are going bankrupt because they get sick. We've got young people who have got the grades and the will and the drive to go to college, but they just don't have the money. And we can't expect that if we do the same things that we've been doing over the last eight years, that somehow we are going to have a different outcome.
We need fundamental change. That's what's at stake in this election. That's the reason I decided to run for president, and I'm hopeful that all of you are prepared to continue this extraordinary journey that we call America. But we're going to have to have the courage and the sacrifice, the nerve to move in a new direction.
McCain offers a man; Obama offers more.
For many voters, it's gotten rather frightening out there. Perhaps frightening enough that the presidential race for them is not about which candidate is a proven hero but about which candidate best speaks to the challenges at hand. (A CBS insta-poll after the debate found that among uncommitted voters, Obama won the debate 39 to 27 percent, with 35 percent calling it a draw.) Obama is campaigning these days as if he senses that the times are on his side. That was clear in the debate. What was also clear was that McCain has to try another tact in the final debate next Wednesday. He will need another lurch.