Two presidential debates and one vice presidential debate already history, on Wednesday night, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain came back together for one last debate moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News. OFB editors Timothy R. Butler and Jason Kettinger agree that the debate had a different tone from the previous ones, but did it change the presidential race?
Timothy R. Butler: Joe the Plumber was the real winner of the final presidential debate. Of course since Joe is not running for president, I am left to select John McCain as the winner. While Barack Obama continued to plow along with his signature cool, calm stoicism – which is laudable, if not sometimes maddening – McCain took a different approach and unleashed some of the passion he is known for. Finally.
With that shift, John McCain won the third debate handily. For those counting, I submit that John McCain won the previous debate and tied, or slightly won, the first. That said, this time around McCain won in a much stronger fashion, presenting with enthusiasm his positions on the economy, taxes and negative campaigning. It was not quite to the same level McCain rose at his nomination in early September, but it was at least something of the normal John McCain most Americans know and love. The problem with the first two debates, though McCain did well, is that he tried to be too careful. Sen. McCain is an excellent debater and it was good for Americans to finally see that.
All in all, McCain’s strongest theme was taxes, but with the twist that he created a strong connection between taxes and the economy at large. Thanks to Joe the Plumber, who served as a ready made example of McCain’s argument, McCain started to paint the biggest objection to Sen. Obama – in a time of financial crisis, the idea of electing a very traditional liberal candidate, who wants to raise taxes during a recession seems problematic. McCain brought President Herbert Hoover up again, but this time he wisely explained who Hoover was – a wise decision given the never ending smattering of surveys that show Americans are not good at recalling historic leaders, beyond the few best known. This is John McCain’s strongest point and one in which most economists are likely to agree with him.
McCain was quick with zingers that were appropriate to the context, which, if not as substantive as his economic points, were at least enjoyable. Perhaps the highlight of the night was when Sen. Obama trotted out his tired comparison of McCain with President George W. Bush. McCain told his opponent he was four years too late if he wanted to run against President Bush. Good for Sen. McCain. Considering the vicious 2000 primary between then Gov. Bush and Sen. McCain, and the subsequent positions taken by both, few have ever really doubted the distinctive between the two Republicans, until Democrats started creating an illusory connection after McCain clinched the nomination earlier this year. Remember: there were rumors for awhile that John McCain might switch parties, or even be Sen. John Kerry’s running mate during the 2004 election cycle. Perhaps Sen. McCain should offer a deal: if Barack Obama will quit trying to tie Sen. McCain falsely to President Bush, McCain will quit truthfully linking Sen. Obama to his former Illinois political collaborators, the felon Tony Rezko and unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayres.
Speaking of Ayres, the member of the domestic terrorist group, the Weather Underground, finally came up last night after much anticipation. What became immediately clear is that Sen. McCain doesn’t want to play dirty. While he knew this was a relevant piece of information, and he had to talk about it, John McCain is much more comfortable talking policy than attacking Obama’s personal judgment.
It was a good debate. After one last week that was disastrously moderated to be a near re-airing of the first debate, both related to a very narrow set of policies, rather than the broad range of issues that normally come up, Bob Schieffer managed to run a much wider gamut. Perhaps instead of John the Arizona Senator or Joe the Ohio Plumber, the real winners were Americans. Schieffer deserves to be noted as the best debate moderator of the season.
Jason Kettinger: There's a thought ringing in the minds of John McCain's supporters after the third debate: “Where was this John McCain 3 months ago?” He was assertive; he was in command of the facts. Obama was on the defensive from the outset. Economics and its details should have been McCain's strength all along. Obama was a cliché machine, just playing defense. Obama's best moment during the economic discussion was suggesting an end to corporate giveaways for the provision of health insurance. It struck me as a very conservative thing to say. But McCain had glittering moments all throughout, hitting Obama on spending, trade, and taxes. McCain also called for an end to ethanol and sugar subsidies; had this not been the final debate, these are statements that could have won the presidency.
We should be encouraged that the question on education reform appeared to produce what could be an emerging consensus around charter schools, challenging teachers' unions, and higher standards. McCain was better here, but Obama knows that parents of children in failing schools are clamoring for major change, even within the Democratic Party.
But the moment that decided the presidency, it will be said, was Obama's answer when confronted about Bill Ayers and ACORN. Deftly minimizing Ayers, Obama managed to sound a bipartisan note about his potential circle of advisors. He convincingly drew a distinction between ACORN and its activities, and rogue individuals who act out of accord with ACORN's objectives. I am predisposed to believe ACORN itself engages in questionable activity, which makes the answer that much more impressive. Unless we find out more about some unsavory acquaintances of Mr. Obama's, I would say the issue has been neutralized.
That said, this was a big win for John McCain. But it is likely too late. Obama played defense well enough. The final debate score is 2-1 McCain, but his inability to make the case for a McCain presidency (as opposed to the case against Obama) will doom him. Barack Obama is the next President of the United States of America.
Jason Kettinger is a contributing editor to Open for Business. Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of Open for Business.