15 October 2008

The Last Gasp

I had an engagement earlier tonight, so I missed the live debate broadcast and had to settle for watching the video in installments afterward on ABC News. After all was said and done, I strongly suspect the two candidates will agree on this: thank goodness the debates are over.

Both candidates had a fairly strong debate, inasmuch as they each showed up like savvy politicians. McCain's chronic blinking belies his extreme discomfort, but the root of that discomfort is still a mystery. Is it Obama? Is it the format? Is it knowing how far he's down and how much he needs to accomplish? Is it shame?

I lean toward an amalgam of all of the above, and possibly a dose of chagrin, too. I can't help listening to McCain speak, and even on his strong points, like linking Obama to Hoover ("from a deep recession to a depression") and repeatedly pushing Ayers and ACORN (neither of which will decide the election), I thought "Now here's a man who's swallowed the bitter pill."

John McCain, to put it mildly, looks out of his element. That said, I also think tonight was his best debate, but that it doesn't matter. Nothing that came up tonight improved McCain's position among the people he most needed to impress. If he didn't outright lose the debate on the topic of Sarah Palin's qualifications, then the health care discussion did him in.

Tonight may not have been Obama's overall strongest performance. We may have seen that in the second debate. But Obama scored two important victories tonight on health care and on the people he pals around with. On the former topic, he really distanced his plan from the McCain plan in a way that voters can relate to. During the second debate I thought Obama missed several opportunities there. He explained his plan but didn't expose the incredible weakness of McCain's plan. Tonight he did both, and I felt a different tone throughout that conversation than previously. After the second debate, voters who had just tuned in may have been aware only of two different but more or less equally political plans on the table. Tonight there is a clear plan from Obama, and a clear sense that McCain's health care plan will do less to support those in need than Obama's. "Hey, Joe, you're rich, congratulations." That's McCain's rebuttal. Seriously? Did anybody understand the lateral move McCain attempted to make?

On health care, though, this takes the cake:

Now, 95 percent of the people in America will receive more money under my plan because they will receive not only their present benefits, which may be taxed, which will be taxed, but then you add $5,000 onto it, except for those people who have the gold-plated Cadillac insurance policies that have to do with cosmetic surgery and transplants and all of those kinds of things.
That's McCain making zero sense at the top of the quote, because how taxing benefits works out as "more money" for Americans under McCain's plan is a complete mystery to everyone, including I think the candidate. But John McCain also revealed a telling tendency to trivialize huge issues. People who get transplant coverage--or people who want transplant coverage--are the lucky ones, the ones who have or want more than they need. They're the ones who get gold-plated Cadillac insurance policies. For "cosmetic surgery and transplants and all those kinds of things."

It takes the breath away. I have a couple acquaintances I'd like to touch base with about the triviality of transplants and those kinds of things.

On the second point, who the candidates surround themselves with, which wasn't actually a question so McCain dodged a bullet, Obama made good on the opportunity to spin the Ayers attack into a mention of Joe Biden, Warren Buffet, Paul Volcker, Dick Lugar, and Jim Jones. This may well be lost on many voters, but these guys are heavyweights. We're not talking Phil Gramm and Rick Davis. Obama's team reflects a level of seriousness and thoughtfulness that the McCain campaign can't touch. You want to compare finance management credentials between Warren Buffet and Phil Gramm? How about international security credentials between Jim Jones and Randy Scheunemann? Oh man. That doesn't win the debate for Obama, but it further emphasizes the distance between the two candidates and how they will govern.

The Obama campaign no doubt wishes they could hold the election tonight, right now, immediately. Three weeks is an eternity, and a lot can happen. But I wonder if the McCain folks, and perhaps John McCain himself, aren't also ready to finally get out the vote, if only to put an end to what has become a palpably unpleasant experience for the candidate and for those of us fortunate enough to watch this chapter of history unfold. I'm not saying it's over, but except for the ads and a few highly orchestrated "news breaks," tonight may have been John McCain's last gasp to prove that he's the man for the job. He needed to stage a brilliant coup to topple Obama, and he fell short of that mark.