McCain Comes Out Swinging, Never Connects: Final Debate


Everyone knew this was an important night for John McCain to make his stand. It’s certainly not his last chance (as the saying goes, “It’s not over till it’s over”), but this was a biggie. And McCain came out swinging. It was apparent from the get-go that McCain’s tactic here was to try and steamroll right over Barack Obama and bring home those talking points: “Barack Obama wants to spend more! Barack Obama wants to raise taxes!” His approach was filled with very little substance, but he tried to come across confident and full of righteous indignation. But two things happened. First, McCain lost steam nearly halfway through and never recovered again. Second, he didn’t come across confident or righteous, but desperate and condescending. This appears to be something McCain can’t shed. However hard he tries to appeal to the American public as one of them, as that down-to-earth “straight-talker” he believes himself to be, the more insincere and angry he appears. John McCain gave it his best shot. But Barack Obama kept his poise, spoke about the issues, took the high-road yet again and, as would appear from the early polls, won the third and final debate for 2008.

John McCain’s introduction of “Joe the Plumber” into the American vernacular was an interesting one and one that won’t be quickly forgotten. And one can be reasonably assured that this Joe is gonna support McCain. I’m sure McCain’s people spoke with Joe beforehand. I mean, what would it look like if Joe came out in favor of Obama the next morning? Not likely to happen. But we may be referring to Joe in many future elections, but maybe not in the way McCain would like us to.

I also can’t deny absolutely loving the moment when John McCain once again tried to claim that Obama was a disaster for small businesses and that “Joe The Plumber” would have to pay a fine. McCain has raised this issue at the other debates and, even though Obama has already answered numerous times, it seems tonight was the first time it actually sank in for Mr. McCain, as is suggested by his deer-in-the-headlights reaction to Obama’s answer, “Zero.”

I was also mildly offended tonight by McCain’s insistence that Obama has been running a dirty campaign and McCain’s supposed “horror” that Obama did not repudiate comments made by Rep. John Lewis who made allegations that Sen Palin and I were somehow associated with one of the worst chapters in American history.” 

Oddly, Sen. Obama HAD replied publicly. As had Lewis. But worse than that, it’s genuinely incredible to watch a man like John McCain, who has come under enormous public attack for running one of the most hate-filled campaigns in American history, actually try to turn the tables and make it look like Mr. Obama’s actions have been reprehensible and thoroughly unacceptable. McCain actually tried to suggest that he had repudiated every inappropriate remark made by a “fringe” McCain supporter at his rallies. However, it is clear to everyone–Democrats and Republicans alike–that McCain repudiated no one until he and Palin were publically slammed by the press for encouraging dangerous and violent comments at their rallies. It was a true absurdest moment.

No one bought it.

Obama quickly reminded McCain that he and Palin allowed supporters to call out “Terrorist” and Kill him!” when referring to Obama. He also mentioned that Palin herself had said numerous times that Obamapalled around with terrorists.” McCain responded by suggesting that if Obama had accepted his invitation to do more Town Hall meetings, the campaign never would have gone down such an ugly path. Obama, as usual, responded by taking the high-road:

“I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings than they are in the issues. The notion that because we are not doing the meetings justifies some of the ads going on… I don’t mind being attacked for the next three weeks, what the American people can’t afford is four more years of failed economic policies.”

And after all this, instead of deciding to talk about these policies, McCain decided to launch into Obama’s connection to Bill Ayers. Obama quickly shot this down and McCain himself admitted that he really didn’t “care about an old, washed-up terrorist.”

Here’s a clip from the debate of McCain not only bringing up the Ayers connection, but accusing both Obama and ACORN of voter fraud:

Here is the immediate reponse of Maude Hurd, of ACORN:

“We appreciate that Senator McCain’s effort to stir up the Republican base by attacking a community group that is trying to increase public participation in our democratic processes. However, these attacks reflect an increasingly panicky candidate; unfortunately the Senator McCain we saw tonight is very different than the Senator McCain who stood shoulder to shoulder with ACORN at a February 20, 2006 immigration reform event.

“It is clear for us to see that John McCain was for ACORN before he was against ACORN; he was for reform before he was against reform; and he was a maverick before he became erratic. What is really going here is that Senator McCain and his allies are part of a coordinated effort to engage in what appears to be an unprecedented effort to suppress voter turnout.”

I would also like to add that I thought Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS did an excellent job, far better than his predecessors. The questions were stronger, the format better for allowing the two candidates to interact.

Now let’s take a look at what others are saying.

CBS News: Fifty-three percent of the uncommitted voters surveyed identified Democratic nominee Barack Obama as the winner of tonight’s debate. Twenty-two percent said Republican rival John McCain won. Twenty-five percent saw the debate as a draw. 

CNN: 58 percent for Obama to McCain’s 31 percent.

Perhaps more importantly, McCain’s favorable rating dropped 51 to 49 while his unfavorable rating increased from 45 percent to 49 percent. Obama ended up with 66 percent favorable rating. 

Asked who “expressed his views more clearly” 66 percent said Obama, 25 percent said McCain. “Who spent their time attacking his opponent:” 80 percent said McCain, seven percent said Obama. “Who seemed to be the stronger leader:” 56 percent for Obama, 39 percent for McCain. And who was “more likeable:” 70 percent for Obama to McCain’s 22 percent.

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg’s poll:

Before the debate:

McCain: 54 favorable / 34 unfavorable

Obama: 42 favorable / 42 unfavorable

After the debate:

McCain: 50 favorable / 48 unfavorable

Obama: 72 favorable / 22 unfavorable

And as always, we take a look at republican Frank Luntz focus group on Fox News: Barack Obama won the debate. Luntz termed it a “clear majority,” but not one person raised their hand when asked if they thought McCain won.

What are individuals saying?

New York Times Editorial:

Wednesday night’s debate was another chance for Mr. McCain to prove that he is ready to lead this country out of its deep economic crisis. But he had one answer to almost every economic question: cut taxes and government spending. Unfortunately, what Mr. McCain means is to cut taxes for the richest Americans and, inevitably, to reduce the kinds of government services that working Americans need more than ever…

…It’s a shame that Mr. McCain hasn’t come up with policies that would actually help workers. Instead, he’s served up the same-old trickle-down theories and a government-is-wrong, markets-are-right fervor that helped create this economic disaster…

Mr. Obama has better ideas to respond to the financial crisis and to put the economy back on the right track. He supports a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures and more money for states and localities, both of which would quickly bring relief beyond Wall Street.

Mr. Obama wants to raise the minimum wage and tie it to inflation. Mr. McCain wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent — a big break for the top 1 percent of society. Mr. Obama would cut taxes for low- and moderate-income families and raise them for richer Americans.

Newsweek’s Andrew Romano:

Over the course of 90 minutes–and I apologize if my count is not complete; my fingers can only type so fast–McCain accused Obama of being a) a craven wealth-spreader (at least eight times), b) an abject tax-raiser, especially on folks unfortunate enough to make $42,000 a year, c) a lily-livered coward who’s never once stood up to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, d) a town-hall avoider, e) a public-financing flip-flopper, f) the most avid negative advertiser in American history, g) a befriender of “washed-up terrorist(s),” h) an enabler of “one of the greatest frauds in voter history” (which just so happens to be “destroying the fabric of American democracy”),  i) an “eloquent” dissembler, j) a support of infanticide and, finally, k) a guy who wants to do all kinds of unspeakable things to someone named Joe the Plumber, up to and including raising his taxes, redistributing his money and fining him for choosing the wrong kind of health care. (No word yet on whether Obama plans to spit in Joe’s beer when he’s looking in the other direction.) After all that, McCain’s claim that his “campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America” seemed like a punchline.

Alan Schroeder, Professor of Journalism, Northeastern University:

The format worked, the moderator asked his questions then got out of the way, and both debaters delivered solid performances. Although McCain came loaded for bear, as the debate progressed, he ran short of ammo and his tone went from aggressive to tetchy. Obama had the luxury of taking the high road, which afforded him a natural advantage, and he deflected many of his opponent’s sharpest barbs with a look of unconcerned amusement. However much McCain gnawed at his heels, Obama blithely shook him off, reinforcing an already established aura of unflappability.

Yves Smith, Writer of Naked Capitalism blog and management consultant:

McCain did better than in the earlier debates, less reliance on now- tired soundbites, more specific on his record, his programs, and a particularly good moment with his “I am not President Bush” retort.

But he needed to hit this out of the park, and fell considerably short. There were plenty of negatives:. McCain came off as overeager, at points cranky and petty, and his attempt to rhapsodize on Palin was revealingly shallow. Obama still is less than credible on spending (but McCain did not do well here either), but Obama nevertheless sounded thoughtful, mature, and in command, and that is more than enough to keep him on track.

Roger Simon, Politico:

John McCain needed a miracle in his final debate with Barack Obama on Wednesday night, a miracle that would wipe away McCain’s deficit in the polls and re-energize his flagging campaign. 

He did not get one. The clouds did not part. Heavenly choirs were not heard. Instead, the American public heard angry attacks from McCain.

Sometimes McCain attacked directly, and sometimes he attacked sarcastically, but he never stopped attacking. And he never rattled Obama. Obama answered every attack and kept his cool.

Marty Kaplan, The Huffington Post:

Ninety minutes of John McCain making faces was more than enough for a lifetime. It’s hard to imagine anyone willingly inviting that antic lemon-sucking grinfest into their homes for the next four years.

And as is typical of people who want their candidate to do better, but have nothing to hold on to so they repeat the same tired, old phrases with nothing to back them up, Roy Blunt, Rep. (R-Mo.) pathetically commented:

Senator McCain proved again tonight that he’ll never shy away from a fight – and that he’s the candidate ready to fight for the American people. The stakes are too high for our country to have untested leadership in the White House. The country needs a leader who will change Washington; the country needs John McCain.

So what are some other Conservative voices saying?

National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru:

“A minute they spend on who’s being meaner or more dishonest in this campaign is a minute that helps Obama–not because he wins the issue, still less because he deserves to win it, but because it is not what is driving people’s votes–and they’ve spent way more than a minute on this stuff.”

Conservative Christian columnist, Rod Dreher:

OK, that’s over. And so is the McCain campaign. He was more aggressive than he’s been so far, and he came close to landing some blows on Obama. But he never really connected, and for the most part this debate was as platitudinous as they all have been. McCain came off as sour, agitated and petulant. Obama — man, nothing rattles that guy. McCain was two tics away from a vein-popping “You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson moment, I felt. At one point, I thought: Which one of these men would I want in the White House when the 3 a.m. phone call comes in?

Jennifer Rubin at Pajamas Media:

At times McCain seemed to connect with a jab or a punch here or there, but his argument at times wavered and his delivery was far from crisp. As for Obama, he was at his calmest and smoothest. If McCain needed to knock Obama off his perch of serenity it didn’t happen.

Conservative Powerline Blog’s Paul Mirengoff:

Ultimately, it seems unlikely that McCain cut into Obama’s lead through this performance. And Obama may have taken another small step towards making Americans comfortable with the prospect of his presidency.

Last but not least, and simply because he is consistently both intelligent and funny, here’s John Stewart commenting on John McCain’s Brand New Stump Speech Tuesday night. Just another example of McCain’s “Change.”

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McCain Comes Out Swinging, Never Connects: Final Debate

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