John McCain did exactly what he wanted to do last night, which could have been the game-changer that he has been trying to make happen for weeks were it the case that all he needed to do was convince fire-breathing Republicans that he was their man.
He hit on Bill Ayers. He constantly referred to Barack Obama's tax plan as raising taxes on Americans, though he didn't go as far as to call him a socialist. They might dock him a point or two on that one, but at least he got his point across. And he made it abundantly clear that he doesn't think Obama is ready to lead.
Problem is, somebody in the McCain camp - that is, apparently everybody - missed the fundamental point about how you can use nationally-televised debates to reach out to undecided swing voters. And the decidedly negative tone that McCain exuded from the opening bell the closing statements didn't go over with that demographic key to a candidate trailing significantly in the polls.
"Americans are hurting right now, and they're angry. They're hurting, and they're angry. They're innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street and as well as Washington, D.C. And they're angry, and they have every reason to be angry," McCain said in his opening statement, somehow injecting the word "angry" into the mix four times in a span of four sentences, I would say as a sop to the Republican base that has been demanding that he show some fight in the face of what seems to be an inevitability in terms of the outcome of the Nov. 4 election, with Obama up double digits in several national polls and that gap seeming to widen in the past several days.
But those same polls have also been suggesting that in the area of nine of ten voters have already made their minds up about who they're going to vote for, and that the one in ten who haven't yet decided on a candidate are not disaffected conservatives or Republicans looking for a reason to come back home but rather a mix of moderate Republicans and Democrats and political agnostics who it would seem would respond better to a calmer and more measured appeal to their sensibilities. I phrase it that way of course in retrospect knowing what the post-debate polls of independent voters had to say - with CBS registering 53 percent of undecided voters who watched the debate as saying that they felt that Obama had won the exchange, and only 22 percent saying that they thought McCain had won. A CNN poll of a cross-section of debate viewers had Obama winning by a 58 percent to 31 percent margin.
The telling tete-a-tete came when moderator Bob Schieffer asked the candidates to engage on their campaign tactics that have as is usual in U.S. presidential politics sunk to gutter level. Each candidate expressed hurt feelings and contrition in the initial exchange on the topic, but when Obama tried to make the point that it is important that the candidates "disagree without being disagreeable" and not "try to characterize each other as bad people," McCain used the opportunity to confront Obama on the two bogiemen of his campaign, '60s radical William Ayers and ACORN, a nonprofit that has come under partisan-led investigations into its voter-registration practices.
I think we'll look back on that moment as the one where the McCain campaign breathed its last clean breath. Obama addressed the smears as he has on the campaign trail for weeks, reporting as mainstream news outlets have been that he had little contact with Ayers in the time that the two served together with a number of others on an education board headed up by a lifelong Republican and dismissing the linkage to ACORN while using the opening to reinforce his bipartisan credentials. "The reason I think that it's important to just get these facts out is because the allegation that Sen. McCain has continually made is that somehow my associations are troubling," Obama said. "Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. If I'm interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or General Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO."
"Those are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House. And I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Sen. McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me," Obama said.
The firebreathers - the people who think, led by GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin, that Obama "pals around with terrorists," who refer to his New Deal-like economic policies as "Marxist," who think it to be the height of hilarity to refer to him as "Barack Hussein Obama" - no doubt ate this up. Hardcore Democrats in 1972 also no doubt absolutely loved the way George McGovern thumbed his nose at the man right to his face. And you might remember what happened to him.