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Finally, the Final Debate

October 16, 2008

Before the Democratic primary ended, I compared a then hypothetical Obama/McCain match-up to the one Presidential campaign with which I have intimate knowledge, Clinton/Dole in ’96. Looking back at that post, turns out the comparison was apt, save that without the ability to predict two future game changers, McCain’s selection of a lightweight far right conservative for a running mate and the near collapse of the banking system.

If you’re uninterested in sifting through my bare bones html tables in that post, I’ll highlight that I guessed Obama could end up dominating the race because of his inherit skills as a “natural” politician, much like his Democratic predecessor Clinton, especially when compared to McCain’s “mean ol’ man” persona.

Forget the minutia of this last debate and the other two and think in terms of the big picture. Obama’s performance carried as much sway with those undecided and independent voters as did his proposals. Each time, he presented himself as Presidential; in temperament, in command of the stage, in oration, as a motivator. McCain could not match that – ever.

His team, or the Senator, didn’t come to terms with that. Sure, it’s fine to “just be yourself,” if being yourself means you’re a likable egghead with a calm demeanor under pressure. If you’re an irascible grump given to churlishly snide remarks, you might want to attempt a slight makeover.

Think about your favorite survival horror movie (if you have one). No one ever chooses the hothead to be the group’s de facto leader. He’s usually dead before the third act begins. Hollywood screenwriters, a generally dim lot, have grasped that the hothead is just plain too annoying to make it to the end credits. Yet McCain and his crew couldn’t suss that out.

The difference in their styles has been evident in each debate, but tonight, it was even more clear as McCain couldn’t resist grimacing, harrumphing, rolling eyes and letting his temper get the best of him. The insta-polls taken reflect this as participants in both the CNN and CBS polls thought McCain to be more “negative” and found Obama more likable. McCain’s performance in the previous debates likely prejudiced opinions of him for the third. McCain needed to change some minds and could not.

Last night McCain appeared to continue with a strategy that would appeal to the Republican base (the social conservatives, not the fiscal conservatives and Reganites who have already kicked him to the curb). He promised to kick Obama’s YOU KNOW WHAT, and at least tried bringing up Ayers and ACORN, two attacks which Obama brushed off his shoulder like dirt. McCain received a gift with the abortion question then promptly fumbled with his sarcastic finger quotes around the phrase “health of the woman,” which really made him look like a parody of a conservative at best, Mr. Burns at worst.

McCain’s attempt to reach out to the hard right mystifies me. That’s Palin’s job. They’re already ginned up, screaming out non-sequiturs at Palin rallies. He needed to change minds of independents. That he didn’t do a good job of it or really try suggests he’s only interested in protecting down ticket races by encouraging conservative voter turn out. I don’t see how anyone who isn’t a rabid fan of Sean Hannity believes these issues matter in the face of a potential economic depression. If he had some strategy to link those issues with Obama’s ability to lead in a crisis, McCain did a terrible job of making that link apparent.

Obama continued to address the concerns of the vast middle class, walking a tightrope between FDR liberalism and populism. He talked up the tax cuts in his economic plan. When he mentioned parental responsibility in children’s education, he struck directly in the heart of grandmothers everywhere. However, most of the time he was content to play defense, and when given the gift of talking about their Vice Presidential candidates, Obama talked up Biden but didn’t put Palin on the mat. I would have liked a stronger defense of the comments by John Lewis. Lewis was not wrong nor out of line. We get it, Obama, you’re not the angry Black guy, we get it already.

McCain had the best line of the evening with his admonition to Obama that if he wished to run against Bush he should have run against him four years ago. It wasn’t quite a Lloyd Benson moment because finding it amusing requires knowing the history of this campaign, but it was pretty good.

One could argue that along with the crap economy, Palin’s interview debacles and McCain’s failure to connect with more independent voters, his insistence on attacking as a hard right conservative (an ill-fitting suit for McCain) was his undoing. But frankly, McCain never really had a chance.

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