Friday, 17 October 2008

McCain goes up, McCain goes down...

Thursday morning (Australian time) saw the last of four debates leading up to the U.S. Presidential election. While most commentators and undecided voters gave the result to Barack Obama, many have suggested that Republican candidate John McCain delivered his best performance to date.

While it's true that McCain was more aggressive and animated during the Hofstra showdown, his performance was aided not so much by his more fiery rhetoric or his invisible dialogue with 'Joe the Plumber' (more of whom later), but by…a table and chair.

In Debate One at Ole Miss, McCain looked ill-at-ease and grumpy at the lectern, avoiding Obama's eye (even when they shook hands…tch tch tch) and appearing almost to turn his shoulder to the 'new kid' on the block, as if out of disdain. It's no surprise McCain looked out of sorts: he really didn't want to be there. Not only did he try to 'suspend the campaign' using the outright (and publicly transparent) lie that he was needed IMMEDIATELY in Washington to help shape the Wall Street bailout bill, he pulled the pin on a David Letterman interview for the same reason.

Letterman busted him in an interview with Katie Couric and later found out he did not return to Washington until the next morning. It appears that the truth of it is...McCain's attempt to ditch the campaign was done out of cowardice. He knew that the electorate ties the economic failure to the Bush administration, an administration he strongly supported, despite his 'maverick' claim.

The second debate in Nashville was a 'town hall-style' number. McCain had been goading Obama through the northern summer to participate in a few of these head-to-heads, presumably because he thinks that this type of venue is where he's at his best. Also, it's a nice needle tactic. Politicians only use the 'debate' chestnut when they know their opponent will decline. It's not about actually having a debate, it's about making your opponent look too frightened to participate. It's a fairly mild old tactic, and it didn't work for McCain.

Neither did the Nashville debate. I'm not sure why McCain thinks he's such a hot town-hall 'stumper'. His performance in the second stoush was easily his worst. He overdid the attempt at cheesy intimacy by whispering into his mic and getting uncomfortably close to questioners. His stiff gait and peripatetic wanderings made him look like much older and...forgetful, like someone who'd lost their keys.
There was also the much-dissected 'that one' comment, which many read as racist. It wasn't. It was one of many cack-handed attempts to look as if he was engaging in a close and conspiratorial conversation with a group of friends, kind of a 'shhh, if I whisper he won't hear...just between you me and the was him.' Fail.

Obama, by contrast, may not have had a great deal to say in any of the debates...but his key is consistency. He's cool, measured, well-spoken, courteous and unflappable. This only serves to make McCain look even more curmudgeonly.

The most recent debate in New York belonged not to Mr Smooth or Mr Cranky, but a shaven-headed Toledan called Joe Wurzelbacher. 'Joe the Plumber' (as he will be known in election lore) was McCain's weapon on Thursday: a 'six-pack' voter who was engaged by Obama on the stump and whom McCain useed as a populist example of why obama's tax policies won't work. Obama & McCain referred to Joe repeatedly during the debate, and as a result the media descended on Wurzelbacher's front yard like Amy Winehouse on a bag of white powder.

Joe seemed to like holding forth too, on everything from taxes to Iraq, bleating a very uniform neocon line. Not, it would appear, just an undecided voter from the 'burbs.

There have been allegations that Joe the Plumber is a not an independent (but a Republican), not a licensed plumber (but a guy who works for plumbers), and tellingly (in a claim first raised online by Martin Eisenstadt of the McCain-friendly Eisenstadt Group) related to one Charles Keating, convicted felon and the man responsible for the S&L scandal in the late 1980s.

That the GOP used Joe as a plant is a bit of a stretch. It's about one hundred times as much of a stretch as Sarah 'Bush with Boobs' Palin asking Joe Biden at the top of the Veep debate if she could call him by his given name purely so she could hit him later on with 'Say it Ain't So, Joe'. All this 'Joe-ing' has got me thinking that there's some kind of McCain campaign drinking game going on. Every time the name is mentioned, the guys back at HQ have to down a shot.

If that's the case, they must've got totally arseholed during the debate the other night. His name was mentioned 21 times by McCain and five by Obama...meaning, won the debate. America's obsession with meaningless distraction worked to bury the populist rhetoric of both candidates.

It's mildly ironic that the Attention Deficit Disroder (read: penchant for shiny things) afflicting Americans contributes to the style and pitch of political campaigns, yet the way in which politicians try to play to this flaw is so lacking in subtlety that it's almost instantly dismissed by the electorate as transparent.

McCain's campaign of the last four or five weeks is an example of this. The big push came in late August. In a perfectly timed move, McCain's choice of VP not only blunted the impact of Obama's DNC speech, it spoke to his overarching need to choose a deputy that would contrast his perceived shortcomings.

Within a matter of weeks, the advantage McCain has built by choosing Palin was gone. Sure, Palin had opened her mouth to Gibson and Couric (and Hannity, but he doesn't count because he threw nerf balls to her like the neocon clock-puncher he is) but it was more than's a capsule of the way it's gone the last few weeks for McCain:

He transparently lied in his justification for suspension of the campaign, he pulled the pin on Letterman, he was wooden, rude and grumpy in Debate One, he called Obama 'that one' in Debate Two and hobbled around the stage like a cranky pensioner looking for free creamed corn, he pulled out of Michigan, flagging to all that he was running out of ideas, he let his people announce to the Wash Post that they were going to run a 'fierce' negative campaign on Obama, flagging to the electorate that they were out of ideas, he used Palin as his loyal drone in testing the water with Ayers & Wright (even though he's condemned the use of Wright as a legitimate tactic), he then pulled out of the negative campaign when his numbers went south almost immediately and he then forced himself into bringing up Ayers in the debate because he found out Obama had taunted him about not being able to say it to his face.

All the while, the core droolers in the GOP ranks who want to believe Obama is a terrorist baby-killing Muslim 'nigger' are hoping and praying that McCain will throw populism to the winds and start hurling all the filth that's been floating around online for 18 months.

If there's one lesson to be learned from all this, it's that these people are more interested in getting the job than doing the job.

If they were keen to show the people integrity, honesty and all that good stuff we like to think we admire, there'd be no such thing as negative campaigning (which of course is not a new phenomenon) and they'd spurn populism, choosing VPs based on merit instead of how they'll 'scan' and answering directly and honestly the questions put to them instead of vomiting their rehearsed soundbites.

In the week after the Palin announcement, McCain turned a seven point deficit into a three point lead. By mid-September, when Palin first opened her stupid mouth to Chuck Gibson, they were locked up again. Now Obama has a 7-ish point lead, which has been reasonably steady for the last week.

The good data from the third debate will come into play over the next day or two, and I'd expect Obama to take a little bit of a hit based on GOP Joe's input. But, as Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics. Two and a half weeks is an eon.

What do they need to do? Obama seems determined to play clean (for a politician, anyway). By that I mean...don't say anything nasty yourself, just let your websites and ads dish the gruel. But I think there's room for Obama to hit a little harder. Hit Bush, call the man a fool, a spendthrift and a murderer. He is all of these things and America needs to be shaken by the lapels in this regard. Obama could stand to get a little angry.

Obama's coolness can appear as aloofness and arrogance, and Lord knows we seem to hate anyone who sounds intelligent. There are a lot of anti-intellectual types who should maybe read up a little on what anti-intellectualism can lead to. Start with Pol Pot.

McCain? Well hell, I dunno. He has no trouble getting angry and making rash calls. If his campaign team doesn't know what to do other than run negative, I can't help 'em. The problem for McCain in these last weeks is that the only people who buy the Ayers stuff are those who are in the tank for him anyway. Everyone else just looks at it and rolls their eyes.

I'm thinking the only thing that can help McCain now is the mystical and magical Bradley Effect...and, in a blow for pundits, analysts, commentators and armchair bigmouths like myself, there's no way of accurately factoring Bradley into the equation until November 5.

The only other thing that can secure a win for McCain is just as nebulous as Bradley: the October Surprise. A few months ago some Internet scribes were suggesting that it would come in the form of a video recording of Michelle Obama spouting Jeremiah Wright-style 'anti-whitey' comments. These people claimed not only that such footage exists, but that they have seen it and it's being kept under wraps in order to provide the maximum impact.

I have some advice for the people who might be in possession of such a tape...if you want McCain to win, it might be a good idea to release this video...last week.