The mystery is over: Joe has spoken. And according to some, he’s not even registered to vote.
John McCain’s latest attempt at a game-changer hit the same sour note as his last attempts. No matter how wide-eyed and innocent his face gets when he repeats his favorite sound bite over and over again, he just doesn’t sound sincere. His constant invocation of Joe the Plumber sounded condescending and desperate, like the gambit of a man looking for a magic word that will turn his campaign around.
Joe the Plumber was a line to lead into McCain’s favorite topic: taxes. Joe the Plumber apparently has plans to buy a small business that will put him over the $250,000 a year income line and into Obama’s increased tax bracket. It seems McCain has given up trying to convince the average-income voters that Obama will raise their taxes, though he did throw out the claim that Obama voted to raise taxes on people making $42,000 a year (FactCheck.org points out that the median income for a family in Toledo, Ohio is $43,553).
All he did with that line was allow Obama to score points by noting that even Fox News had called that a lie.
McCain’s response to Obama’s explanation of his tax plan is “Let’s not raise anyone’s taxes.” Yet we’re still involved in two wars, and facing, as Obama stressed, “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”
This might be an excellent time for both candidates to put aside tax-cut rhetoric in favor of some—dare I say straight talk?—about taxes, what they pay for, and how in a time of crisis some of us might have to prioritize. Do we want health care, or lower taxes? Do we want jobs, or lower taxes? Do we want decent schools, or lower taxes?
Neither candidate is willing to take that risk, but at least Obama is honest about his plan, and for whom it will raise taxes. McCain is too busy reaching for the next Joe the Plumber faux-folksy anecdote.
Moderator Bob Schieffer did the best job of all the monitors so far in attempting to make the candidates actually answer the questions, and put McCain on the spot by essentially daring him to say to Obama’s face the things he’s been saying on the stump about Bill Ayers and ACORN. McCain stumbled at first, then managed to interrupt Obama and look quite proud of himself when he finally managed to get out a question about Bill Ayers and work in a reference to Hillary Clinton while he was at it.
The problem with spouting off on the campaign trail about something for weeks before finally asking your opponent to his face is that he’s had plenty of practice explaining the situation. Obama smoothly rebutted McCain’s points, and left McCain sounding like a whiny child when he all but begged Obama to repudiate John Lewis’s comments about McCain rallies, calling them the worst things he’s heard on a campaign trail in his lifetime. Guess he forgets that he was actually around for George Wallace’s campaign.
Meanwhile, McCain not only failed to repudiate the “terrorist!” and “kill him!” cries of his supporters toward Obama, he actually defended the people who come to his rallies, calling them “patriotic Americans.” One more hint that perhaps McCain has given up on swing voters and is trying instead to solidify the base of the Republican party. But in doing so he handed Obama yet another opportunity to look calm and presidential in the face of histrionics.
McCain’s abortion pandering was another reach to the base. Though he said that he wouldn’t have a litmus test for Supreme Court justices on Roe v. Wade, he concluded his answer by saying that any judge who thought Roe v. Wade was properly decided was not a good jurist. So, in essence, he would indeed have a litmus test.
Dangerous territory, again, since the latest poll still shows 63% of Americans agree with Roe v. Wade. McCain also referred to the idea of protecting the health of the mother as “the extreme pro-abortion position.” Unfortunately, only about 10% of America agrees with him.
Obama stressed the right to privacy and said that “Rights shouldn’t be subject to popular vote or state referendum.” Though neither was as good as his simply stated “I trust women” in the first primary debate way back in 2007, he did an excellent job of placing abortion in the context of health care decisions rather than public policy.
On the trade question, the closest this debate actually came to economic policy (besides taxes), McCain desperately searched for a way to bring up Iran and took a swing at Obama for never having traveled “below our Southern border.” This is from a man whose running mate just got her passport last year.
Finally, education allowed McCain another chance to use his running mate’s special needs child as a prop and throw out yet another favorite right wing talking point: school vouchers. Support for charter schools was one of Obama’s topics where he said he disagreed with his party, but let’s face it: the education issue is an afterthought in this election. Still, Obama’s community-service-for-college-money plan is a surefire applause line, and speaks to the better nature of Americans, something sorely needed in this campaign.
When it comes down to it, as E.J. Dionne noted, one candidate at least reaches out to the best instincts of Americans, while the other appeals to their fears, xenophobia, and greed. Obama is not a perfect candidate by a long shot, but he is calm and thoughtful, not prone to outbursts or sudden changes of heart or fits of temper, and he appears to have some faith in American people not being stupid, selfish, or racist.
John McCain, by contrast, talks to voters like they’re children, and shields the actions of the worst of them under the word “patriotic.” The previous debates have given us a consistent picture of the candidates, and nothing changed with this one.
I’ll close with Bob Schieffer’s words: “Go vote now, it’ll make you feel big and strong.”