How much do I not like John McCain now, because of this final debate in Campaign 2008? Let me count the ways - which, at this point, number far greater than the components of a well-equipped plumber's tool collection.
I'm struck, immediately, by two moments. No, the now-famous Joe the Plumber was nowhere in sight in either case. I'm struck by, and I'm stuck on, the following statement by John McCain: "I'm proud of the people that come to our rallies." Whoa. You're proud of that, Senator McCain? Really? You're proud of the rabid crowd that grows so inflamed that it spews out random belches of anger and racism and murderous violence like molten comets zooming skyward from the bowels of an erupting volcano? How would YOU characterize the hollering of "kill him!" during GOP stump speeches when Barack Obama's name is mentioned, Senator McCain? You can't get away with blaming one or two bubbles popping at the surface of the boiling pot of oatmeal for being hot, and excuse the rest of the pot from having reached the boiling point.
The other involved a second incendiary topic -- the choice issue. Moderator Bob Schieffer dared to tread through the treacherous turf of abortion. Soon enough, the talk turned to late-term abortions, and Obama's opposition to them except in the case of the health or life of the mother. And there was John McCain twitching his fingers in the air to put the word "health" in quotation marks -- at once insulting and stunningly dismissive. A woman's "health" is something to be demeaned or discounted? A woman's "health" is so trivial that you put it in visual quotation marks as a wink-wink nudge-nudge type of thing? Excuse me?
Schieffer caused many of the softest sore spots to be laid bare. William Ayers came up for discussion, in what appeared to be an easy point scored for John McCain. Everyone knew or suspected that Ayers would be brought up somehow or other. McCain attempted to use him as a charging bull in a bullfight, with Obama as a sort of matador, brushing the bull past any danger zones with a flourish of his bright red cape. And it was a very fair point Obama made, observing how Ayers has become a main focus, if not an obsession, with the McCain campaign -- which he said tells you more about the McCain campaign than it does about Obama himself.
One of the tender spots for McCain was Obama's reference to the fiscal recklessness and wreckage of the past eight years. McCain almost growled "I'm not President Bush," adding that if Obama had wanted to run against Dubya he should have done so in 2004. As if a single pointed retort in a single debate could reverse a long and obvious track record of McCain's embrace of the most unpopular and incompetent chief executive and most misbegotten policies ever. The rest of us could think back, too. I could return to sometime in 2001 as the time to start asking "why can't we have accountability?" instead of waiting until mid-October, 2008, as McCain did at the Hofstra University debate.
And Congressman John Lewis's name came up again - clearly John McCain is still smarting from the angry, divisive rhetoric in his and Sarah Palin's campaign appearances that recklessly stirs up audience members. Truth hurts, I guess. In my opinion, Lewis said nothing to apologize for, nor does the Obama campaign have anything to repudiate. The civil rights icon, who remembers how horrifically high the political temperature during that tortured time in American history, made a fair comparison between the hate-filled environment back then and the vapors being exacerbated among the desperate and misguided now. For McCain then to huff and whine, childishly, to the effect of -- "well, YOU did it TOO" made me wonder when the real adults we once heard so loudly boasted about by Republicans in the dawn of the Bush 2.0 era will be back in charge.
For an answer, one was left looking, yet again, at the opposite side of the debate table where Barack Obama sat. Once more, actions spoke louder than words. Will anything ever unspool this guy? He's been through dozens of debates with every imaginable contender by now, and weathered every challenge, put-down, rash accusation, and kick to the groin, and he's still standing without even a visible bruise. He was consistently a study in grace under fire offering gentle corrections when he felt McCain misrepresented his record, whether it involved tax policy, William Ayers, or ACORN, and holding his fire when given a justified opportunity to slam Palin for being the wrong shade of green (and we're not talking about her environmental record). It became clearer than ever whose hand would be, and so far has been, the steadiest at the controls.
The debate drinking game crowd was probably disappointed - not one mention of the word "maverick," and only one "my friends." However, if you were listening for such campaign stump standards as "giving 750 billion dollars to countries that don't like us very much" and variations on the "I know how to (fill in the blank here)," then you probably got a nice buzz out of the evening. But anyone could have gotten thoroughly plowed on the insults, leers, angry-nearly-to-apparent-derangement facial expressions, Dubya-reminiscent smirks, and overall condescension from McCain's side of the table. At 72 years of age, he behaves like a spoiled brat and sore loser on the playground. Sorry, but I can't picture that demeanor sitting across a delicate negotiating table with a dicey international adversary, or "reaching across the aisle to get things done" with political opponents here at home - and accomplishing much of anything.
What struck me while watching the CNN broadcast (with its live reaction meters) was how McCain and Obama behaved toward each other. While watching them react to one another, Obama reminded me of a weary but still patient dad watching his unruly two-year-old throw another tantrum in public. McCain, on the other hand, looked at Obama (yes, he actually did look AT Obama from time to time) as though he were some lab specimen. There were two particularly nasty little putdowns wrapped in contrived compliments purportedly praising Obama's eloquence while trying to skewer him with it. The people meters, interestingly enough, showed again how women seem to warm to Obama's positions, and their reactions went south every time McCain went on the attack. It remains to be seen whether the now-legendary Joe the Plumber can tweak the pipes enough to clear the blockage in McCain's now-constipated campaign.
So did mine. But admittedly, I was already there, anyway. I'd still like to like John McCain, especially since I once did - to some degree anyway. And with every day on this marathon, in every speech, and every debate, I'm less motivated to do so. Mercifully, at least the debate portion of the season is now over.
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