Last US Presidential debate too little, too late to save John McCain

John McCain distances himself from the Bush years and champions Joe the Plumber, but he was too negative and too angry to ruffle a smooth Barak Obama.

The 800lb gorilla in the room finally got some attention, as US Presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama sat down for their final debate in a campaign that seems to have gone on since Obama was in school shorts. The gorilla is, of course, the ugly, indirect smear campaign that this marathon has descended to, and tonight McCain finally looked at his opponent–well some of the time. Mostly he looked down the barrel of the camera, but the impact was often undermined by his stumbling over his words. A lot. Sarah Palin for example he described as a “bresh of freth air”.

The spectre of George W. Bush did raise its head in the debate, when McCain finally looked at Obama and insisted that he was not President Bush, adding, “if you want to run against Bush you should have run four years ago”. Way to start John. Trouble was that he was up against an Ali in a boxing ring, and fighting like a butterfly Obama was not prepared to engage at the level McCain was gunning for–even resisting the chance to slag Palin for the litany of troubles she has left in her six-pack, lipsticked pit bull-wake.

McCain in the early stages was clearly going for an Oscar, so choked up did he appear recounting how hurt he was with the awful and unnecessary things that Obama’s supporters and campaign were saying about him. Hold the phone. This is the guy whose supporters were chanting that Obama was a terrorist and that he should be killed! McCain said it was a tough campaign and he regrets aspects of both camps, then incapable of restraint, went on to sling the mud without actually making a clear gain.

There were accusations over negative ads–Obama being accused of spending more money on negative ads than any other campaign in history. Counter-punch from Obama was a claim that every one of McCain’s campaign ads has been negative. McCain then attempted to twist the smear question to suggest that the tenor of the campaign had gone belly up because Obama had not agreed to his request for town hall meetings. Then, in what was a ridiculous turn, he said he was not going to stand for anything awful being said about the people who turn up to his rallies. Just listening to McCain in the debate, without the benefit of having seen the crowds at the McCain-Palin rallies, you’d have been left with the impression that they were full of war veterans. Chocker with war veterans. Possibly even some from the Civil War. McCain is not going to stand for anything negative being said about the people who turn up to his rallies–all the while excusing the odd “fringe element” when you get crowds of “10, 12, 15 thousand”.

That’s an apology you get when you don’t get an apology. Obama pointed out these are the people who have called for his head, but added he could take three more weeks of abuse; it’s just that the American people (there’s that term again) are sick of the negativity and want to know what’s happening with their economy.

The second prong of the smear campaign has been allegations that Palin made about Obama “palling around” with terrorists. Note the plural, terrorists. Bill Ayers from the Weather Underground is the Republican’s star exhibit. Obama’s clearly had enough of this, so he outlined yet again his repudiation of Ayers’ activities in the 1970s when Obama was 8 years-old. He said ten years ago he and Ayers both served on a School Reform Board, funded by a Reagan ambassador, and peopled by Republicans such as the President of North Western University and the President of the Chicago Tribune. He denied Ayers was involved in his campaign and said he would never be a source of advice in an Obama White House. End of story? Not likely. Normally the straight explanation would be enough to pretty much neutralize the issue, but in this campaign even the smallest association can be twisted into a major distortion aimed at nothing short of harm.

Watching this section of the debate on a split-screen was telling. As McCain angrily justified, rather than repudiated Palin’s comments, Obama was looking directly at him and smiling. It was the calm and composed demeanour that has unsettled the McCain camp. It was the reason the McCain camp has been determined to keep the focus on rubbishing Obama personally, because they know talking the economy is a loser for the incumbent party. Obama’s camp however sees 'calm and collected' on all issues as the presidential stance, and that’s why he’s moved ahead in the polls.

The one person in America you would not want to be during or immediately after this debate is Joe the Plumber. Poor guy. He’s political fodder now. That’ll teach him for talking to Obama at a rally and then talking to McCain. Joe is a guy McCain invoked at the very beginning of the debate as a way of illustrating his accusation that Obama wants to destroy small business. It’s a ‘he says, he says' tit-for-tat scenario. McCain says Obama will raise Joe’s taxes and prevent him from buying the plumbing business he’s worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week at and wants to now buy. Obama says his policies actually give tax cuts for small businesses earning under $250,000 a year, which accounts for 98% of small businesses…and on it goes. Joe this, Joe that, 25 times in all, so by the end of the debate it was McCain’s “my old buddy Joe the plumber”. What? My old buddy? So was Joe actually a plant at the Obama rally? Or is Joe now McCain’s new invisible friend?

Amidst the disaster that is the American economy this debate will be remembered not for economic policies but for the “I am no George Bush” quip and for hard workin' Joe. It was not enough to dent Obama’s lead or knock him off his perch. While he’s not likely measuring the drapes in the White House yet, he has the confidence of being ahead on the home straight and it showed. McCain was trying too hard. His attempts at sarcasm did not fly, he got tied up in the complexities of his own health policy and the abortion issue, and his negativity seeped through no matter the topic at hand.

The margin between the two should, on the basis of this debate, increase rather than close if for no other reason than McCain came across as another Bush-like ideologue with tactics Obama said told us more about McCain’s campaign than about Obama. McCain's performance will no doubt have pleased the Republican base, but it was not the game-changer needed to win over undecided voters. While November 4 is still a long way away politically speaking, it is probably not distant enough for McCain to undo the damage of the past couple of weeks.  Perhaps his buddy Joe will give him a job as a plumber.