So is this the real John McCain?
No question the man who turned up last night did a better job than he'd done at the previous two debates. But here's the problem for McCain: he's either last week's guy, who seems to be on medication, or he's this week's guy, who seems to have been abruptly taken off it.
He gave the game away in his first answer when, in talking about the economy, he said that Americans were angry. But Americans aren't angry, they're poleaxed. They're terrified. They're afraid they're going to lose their jobs or their homes or their pensions. They're worried they won't be able to send their kids to college. If John McCain thinks they're angry, it's either because he's projecting, or else he's simply been going to too many of his own rallies.
As he smirked and blinked and raised his eyebrows, I couldn't help wondering what tonight's McCain seemed like to all those conservative pundits who'd been hoping a different McCain would show up. Is this what they meant? Is this the John McCain of Bill Kristol's dreams?
Whichever McCain shows up, some things stay the same. He's a towel-snapper. He can't land a joke. He seems old. (As Martin Short said on Letterman just after the debate, "The only time he doesn't have to pee is when he's peeing.") And he's an absolutely terrible actor. Every time McCain went into his Joe-the-plumber-bit, those undecided voters on CNN were unmoved. They were probably not saying barf, like some of us were, but that's only because they're not allowed to talk amongst themselves during the debate.
At the Time Politics conference this week, New York Times columnist Frank Rich asked, "Was there any way that the Sarah Palin choice might have played out differently?" CBS' Jeff Greenfield gave a wonderful answer. He said the question reminded him of a woman friend who'd said of her divorce, "We would have had a wonderful marriage if he had been a completely different person." Isn't that great? It's practically a Zen koan, not that I know what a Zen koan is. But one of the most remarkable things about Barack Obama is that he's the same person every time he shows up. And as for John McCain, a completely different person showed up tonight, and it didn't seem to matter.