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10.16.08

John the Plumber v. Barry the Crooner

I liked McCain a lot more in this third debate. There was an oldster sturdiness about him planted behind the desk. After two weeks of firing into the air and flying upside down the old fighter pilot at least brought the plane in without bursting into flames. Trouble is, the split screen does him in every time. Haven’t his handlers told him that when he’s not talking, the camera tracks his bottled fury as surely as those two electrocardiograms of an Ohio group’s reactions coursing across the bottom of the screen?  His reaction shots became the movie. The mad dog eye blinks, harrumphing indignation, and daftly condescending smile make him into some Kurtwood Smith codger, forever giving Obama the big-Daddy evil eye, as though Barack were the duck-tailed hooligan who dares to date his daughter.

The Democrats who keep hoping to glimpse his inner Bobby Kennedy are never going to get to see it.

The bad luck for McCain is that by now the electorate can see that Obama is anything but a tearaway. In fact the thought did occur to me how very, very bored we are going to be four weeks into an Obama presidency. The Democrats who keep hoping to glimpse his inner Bobby Kennedy are never going to get to see it. When Bob Schieffer asked each candidate, “Why would the country be better off if your running mate became president rather than his running mate?” Obama went off into such waffly euphemistic verbiage (“You know, I think it's that's going to be up to the American people. I think that, obviously, she's a capable politician who has, I think, excited the blah blah blah) that an actor I was watching it with at a debate party let out an involuntary yelp of “Oh come on, yah pussy, say it!”

McCain was trying to be deeply ironic when he twice said he admired Obama’s “eloquence” meaning his failure to answer a fusillade of direct questions.  The younger guy doesn’t feel he has to.  A trace of smugness glided across his cool, hombre visage. McCain battled on, summoning up Joe the Plumber. But then the worthy Joe took over the debate and McCain couldn’t get rid of the guy just like the goddamn builder you can’t get out of your house. 

The new salt-of-the earth star of the political reality show, Joe, even showed up after the debate with Katie Couric on CBS News. “You know, I've always wanted to ask one of these guys a question and really corner them and get them to answer a question for once instead of tap dancing around it,” he told her. "And unfortunately I asked the question, but I still got a tap dance...almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr.” (No doubt we will be told there was a sinister Bradley effect undertow here.)

One of his better moments was on drilling not the actual proposal but Obama’s apparent inclusion of drilling in his energy program. “Did you get that,” said McCain with that new demonic glint, “We will look at offshore drilling. Did you get that? Look at!” But this was one of the few times his fire clipped a wing on his shrugging opponent who’d landed and gone for a coffee while McCain was still peppering the clouds.

What’s amazing is how the cataclysm we’ve been living in the last four weeks has completely obliterated the resonance of McCain’s personal story. It seems impossible that what once seemed the unbeatable presidential narrative of the ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton now feels like the sepia irrelevance of old clips on the History channel. McCain himself didn’t mention his years of torture once. Instead he tried to distance himself from the more current hell that Americans all too keenly remember: the miseries of the Bush years now lovingly defenestrated in Oliver Stone’s new movie W.

McCain doesn’t just have to separate himself from Bush though.  He has to separate himself from the last Republican action hero, Ronald Reagan. In the multitrillion dollar meltdown people don’t buy the tax cut pork barrel flim-flam any more. They’re all taking courses in what a derivative means. When McCain started banging on again about the 3 million dollars for repairing the Adler planetarium in Chicago that his opponent had slipped in as an earmark Obama’s smug look returned: “The old guy doesn’t get it.”  What is clear is that in the end, McCain is a soldier not a politician. He is battling on alone at a time when the Republican Party has completely collapsed.  So now what are we left with three weeks before the election?  My friends, darkness visible.

Check out other opinions on the debate from The Daily Beast team.