Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Final Debate

By Sharon Dooley.

John McCain entered the final campaign debate of 2008 in full offensive mode. He came into the evening like an old bull ready for one last outing in the arena, ready to defeat his younger, less tested opponent. He was unprepared for the matador known as Barack Obama. At first Barack seemed surprised by this aggressive manner, but soon, he shook his head, showed a smile and crafted careful answers without even brandishing his red cape.

McCain appeared angry and seemed to frequently be in a struggle to control his emotions as his eyes blinked, his eyebrows twitched, and he frowned again and again. He charged into the debate with all of his weapons at hand: his tax policy, foreclosure scheme, healthcare policy ideas, abortion and “Joe the plumber”. He threw in ‘the tired ole terrorist – Bill Ayers’ (a man younger than he is, if facts are considered), but his punch was parried and the charge missed its target. Time and time again Obama corrected statements made during these explosive attacks, while McCain interrupted frequently and sputtered in the background. Obama countered with the occasional remarks about McCain and Bush being buddies and McCain got off one of his best lines of the evening claiming that if Obama wanted to run against Bush, he should have run 4 years ago.

The moderator, Bob Schieffer, was a bland, but effective host and did try to get the two candidates to engage, particularly over the issues of negative campaigning, and choice of running mates, without a great deal of success. McCain defended his selection of Sarah Palin in an odd manner and seemed to not understand the differences between Downs Syndrome, a congenital condition and autism, which develops later, after birth. McCain would not disavow Palins’ negative characterizations of Obama. Obama noted the strengths and appropriateness of his pick of Joe Biden and claimed the vast majority of his ads were positive.

Most telling, perhaps, was an exchange when Obama was trying to explain his vote in the Illinois legislature against a bill about late-term abortions, which was also opposed by the local medical societies as restrictive and redundant, and which did not include protections for the health of the mother. As Obama was explaining there were other laws addressing this matter that sufficed, McCain was actively interrupting, gesturing that the term ‘health of the mother’ was a false issue.

(Aside: Perhaps in the storied, overly macho world of the Top Gun pilots, pregnant women are not players, but from my health care perspective – they DO count. In a NY Times article, Cindy McCain was said to have suffered several miscarriages alone – how utterly sad that must have been.)

Throughout the evening Barack Obama seemed bemused as if to say – ‘is that the best that you can show me?’ Initially placed on the defensive, he settled in and calmly made his way through the debate, although he was thrown off track several times and neglected to make his better arguments. For McCain, the evening seemed to be surreal. The “Joe the Plumber” symbolism was a hook that by the end of the evening he was clinging to like a life-line. Far better it would seem for McCain to have reached out to women, the Madge the manicurist, Alice the waitress – women in the service economy whose wages and tips disappear in times of economic downturn. These are the women McCain seems to be trying to scare with tales of terrorists, a known Rovian tactic. These are the women, formerly loyal to Hillary, who are appearing to turn toward Obama in the closing days of the campaign. Consider the frequent mention by Obama on the campaign trail of Lilly Ledbetter, the female factory worker disdained by the current Supreme Court on an equal pay dispute. During the debate, Barack seemed to indicate that while he would have no litmus test for judges, the process could be improved. McCain – far from reaching out – seems to be falling back toward his base and reinforced his support for decisions of the current Court.

It looks to me, that by the end of the debate the old bull had stumbled, but the matador, respecting his opponent unilaterally, chose valor over vengeance and walked away from the ring.