A political campaign can be like a rock slide. At some point, it's just going to continue in the direction it's heading--and not much can stop it. After the final debate between Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain, it may well be that the 2008 presidential contest has reached not the tipping point, but that rock slide point. This is not a prediction of a pro-Obama avalanche on November 4--though that's a possibility. It's merely an observation that the campaign may be done in the sense that there are no major inputs to come (barring a bolt-from-the-blue event) that will affect the final tally. Polls will show that there are still some undecided voters out there. (Who are these people?) But whatever's going to determine this election--economic concerns, a desire for change, racism, you name it--is probably already in place, and the candidates may not be able to alter this, at least not in a proactive manner. Certainly, at any time, either can turn the race upside down by saying or doing something particularly dopey.
Neither got dopey on Wednesday night. McCain even had his best (or his least unsuccessful) debate performance, but it was no--damn, I hate this cliché--game changer. McCain was more aggressive than in the previous face-offs, and he finally dared to challenge Barack Obama directly on the--drum roll, please--Bill Ayers Question. But there was this: viewers watching McCain's reaction shots during the evening could have easily wondered if the Republican presidential nominee would make it to the finish without his head exploding, for he seemed to be in the midst of an exercise in anger control.
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? And why repeat the false claim that Obama launched his first political campaign within Ayer's living room?
This was essentially McCain's love letter to the GOP base. ("Now get off my case, okay?") More important, he attached it to his true attack of the night: Obama will raise your taxes. After quickly running through his Ayers index cards, McCain noted, "My campaign is about getting this economy back on track...I'm not going to raise taxes the way Senator Obama wants to raise taxes." In what was probably the last big moment of the campaign before Election Day, McCain offered this meta-argument: Obama is a liberal tax-and-spend Democrat, and I'm a conservative. (He left off the Republican part.)
Repeatedly, McCain accused Obama of wanting to throw money at problems and of yearning to raise taxes. When Obama maintained he would give tax breaks to the bottom 95 percent--and more tax relief than McCain would to this large slice of the American public--McCain replied: hey, this guy wants to raise taxes. And, by the way, he wants to spend your money.
McCain did tout his own plan to spend $300 billion to buy up troubled home mortgages, and he maintained his health care tax credits were the right medicine. (Obama blasted the former as a "giveaway" to banks and noted that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had slammed the latter.) But his main message was, Obama is just another Democrat and, my friends, we all know what that means. Obama, he charged, wants to spread the wealth. J'accuse: he wants class warfare.
After nearly eight years of a conservative Republican White House now held in disdain by many voters--and at a time when the federal government is partially nationalizing banks--how much juice is there in this old Democrats-are-bad argument? Sure, McCain was punchier in this debate than in the previous two. But being aggressive on a tired message won't do a candidate much good. "I am not President Bush," McCain proclaimed with some anger in his voice. But this declaration of purported independence may have come a bit late in the process.
And Obama did fight back. He repeatedly corrected McCain when McCain mischaracterized his tax plans. He reminded viewers that McCain favors handing $200 billion in tax cuts to corporations, including ExxonMobile. Obama talked about raising taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for "core investments"--tax breaks for middle-class Americans, health care, education, and energy independence. McCain fired back: there he goes again, thinking that the government can do better with Joe the Plumber's money than Joe can. (Joe the Plumber is a real guy, and McCain cited him as someone who would not fare well under Obama's tax proposal.) But at a time of crisis, such Reaganistic rhetoric--as much as it jazzes up base voters--could come across to some as either retro or, worse, irrelevant.
McCain talked much about how he would cut spending in Washington; Obama discussed how he would assist middle-class Americans. Perhaps the key question then is, do voters want a president who will kick butt on Capitol Hill regarding certain types of spending, or one who will help them during tough times?
And do they want a grouch? McCain frequently appeared irritated. He interrupted Obama more than he should have. And he stumbled over his words too often. (In deriding gold-plated health care plans, he equated transplants with cosmetic surgery.) At one point, McCain went on too long, demanding that Obama repudiate Rep. John Lewis' observation that the hatred on display at McCain-Palin rallies was reminiscent of the worst days of the civil rights movement. On this matter, McCain came across as petulant. (Obama noted his campaign had put out a statement calling Lewis' comparison inappropriate.) More than once, McCain sarcastically complimented Obama's "eloquence."
Obama was, again, cool and calm. He praised McCain for showing "commendable independence" on some issues, such as the use of torture. Obama never took the bait. He ably batted back McCain's attacks on his tax record and proposal. He spoke in measured tones about abortion and voiced respect for those who differ with him on this topic. If his goal was to look steady and smooth--like someone capable of dealing with, say, a mega-crisis--Obama succeeded.
In his closing statement, McCain said the fundamental issue of the campaign was whether "you can trust us or not to be careful stewards of your tax dollars." He noted his decades of service to the country--as in, Country First--and asked voters to "give me an opportunity to serve again." Obama took a different approach: he again outlined what he wants to do for the middle class: tax cuts, health care reform, greater access to college, an energy independence program. As had happened in the last debate, McCain finished by referencing the McCain-the-Hero Story; Obama was offering himself as a leader who will do right by and for you. It was past versus future. Old guy versus young guy. You do the math.
Though television pundits initially praised McCain's feisty performance, the quickie polls, once more, indicated viewers scored the debate a win for Obama. (CNN: 58-to-31; CBS: 53-to-32.) That was no surprise. The issue is not whether McCain's attacks this time around were slightly more focused or assertive; it's what he's selling. And in the midst of an economic maelstrom, how many voters want a fellow at the helm who says government is the problem. There's also a significant measure of cognitive dissonance within McCain's pitch: one moment, he's assailing Obama's addiction to government solutions; the next he's calling for the government to buy up all those bad mortgages.
Which brings us back to the rock slide. The forces that will dictate the final outcome may well be set by now. And there was not much McCain could have done in this last debate to change the movement of the tectonic plates of this election. There could be last-minute bombshells. And it's likely that independent outfits on the right are preparing a final blitzkrieg of negative ads against Obama (that secret Muslim/Black Panther socialist who hangs out with domestic terrorists who want to kill you and your family). But the race might be over but for the remaining shouting and the actual voting--though early voting has begun in many states, with already 540,000 people having voted in the state of Georgia.
It sure is not an encouraging sign for a candidate when he does his best in a debate and the insta-polls indicate that he was crushed. Following this debate, Obama will continue to stride along--being reassuring, if even boring. And for McCain, there does not appear to be any obvious path. After all, he's not behind the wheel. For the next three weeks, he's stuck in the passenger seat. And see that sign? Caution: falling rocks.