The slide continues, but these days it's a mudslide of desperation and deceit -- so blatant that McCain strategists, if you can call them that, announced they were moving to nasty because they can't compete on the issues. The candidate himself chimed in, promising to take the gloves off in the debate, urged on publicly by his running mate as she threw spitballs at every stop.Then tonight McCain was something of a paper tiger, reluctant to live down to the pre-debate promise to be the agent of slime, trying to seem presidential but coming across as largely empty on the big issues.
He won't be elected because he has nothing relevant to offer for an economy in meltdown and a nation in fear. His last resort answer isn't hope, but more fear -- of Obama. But Obama persuasively swatted away the lies about tax increases and health care; McCain lost both arguments. His blame game on Fannie Mae predictably came a cropper when Obama deftly pointed to the lobbying role of McCain's own campaign manager. If the question of the first debate was whether Obama would pass the threshold on national security -- he did then and again tonight -- the reality of this debate is that McCain didn't pass the threshold on the economy. He can't get there with blather about earmarks; the voters aren't dumb. And his tax cuts for the wealthy are hardly appealing in this environment.
Lacking convincing answers, McCain has sent his running mate out to be a rabble-rouser in high heels. But why didn't he take off the gloves tonight, as predicted by his own associates, and swing away wildly with personal attacks -- not on policy, where he happily lied away, but on Obama's character, where McCain mostly shied away? Maybe he thought he had to tread carefully in this arena -- did the country really want to see him with a hatchet in his hand -- and leave the foulest attacks to the commercials, the surrogates and the spots? But there's another reason, even if it doesn't occur to McCain: a small-bore collection of transparently tired and obvious smears is irrelevant to the urgent concerns of people's lives in 2008. Jobs lost, stocks crashing, banks failing; you can't switch subjects by Roving into the old territory of cultural alienation fired by the false, the appeal to stereotypes and yes to racial suspicion and outright intolerance. Right now Americans worry a lot more about paying their bills than about Bill Ayers.
Unbelievably, McCain did violate a cardinal rule and tried the same rhetorical trick for a second debate in a row, charging that Obama doesn't "understand" national security. Obama was ready -- "I'll tell you what I don't understand" -- why McCain wanted to invade a country, Iraq, that had nothing to do with 9/11.
The big story tonight that's central to this contest: Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of President Obama. He widened that comfort zone tonight. He was at ease as he responded to individual voters. He was powerful and emotional as he discussed and dominated the very human question of health care. The "other," as the Republicans labored to paint him, now comes across as reassuring, a strong and steady hand in a crisis, possessed of that grace under pressure that Americans prize in a president. Obama had it again tonight. McCain did marginally better than in the last debate, but far, far from good enough. He lost on the issues and Obama won on style. (Why does McCain prefer the town hall format? For understandable reasons, he's awkward wandering around a stage and looks more comfortable at a podium.)
Now it's back to the campaign trail and the mudbath that after tonight the Republicans will see more and more as their only chance. In my view it's not the path to victory but to dishonor. There is some evidence Republicans don't care about that, but some believe that McCain used to. So the next time someone in a crowd she gins up shouts "traitor" at the mention of Obama's name, Palin ought to reach into that studied vernacular vocabulary of hers and tell them to "shut up." She won't of course. She wants this reaction; I guess McCain does too. It's all they've got.