The Third Presidential Debate: Good Night for McCain

–Richard E. Vatz

I am aware of the two possible interpretations of my title – do I mean Sen. McCain had a “good night,” or do I mean that I think it is all over for his presidential chances? I believe both.

Let me start at the beginning: this is what a good presidential debate looks like. In fact, taking into account the freedom of the exchanges, the comprehensiveness of the discussions and the two men’s generally clear articulation of their differences, it may have been the best presidential debate ever (ranking below only the near-perfect Vice Presidential Debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman).

The answers were almost always clear and responsive to the questions. Significantly, there was no nagging feeling that the format interfered with the quality of the debate; any weaknesses in argument were due to the participants’ inadequate presentation of points, and there were few of those. Overall, Sen. McCain was more aggressive, clearer and more focused, but why wait until debate #3 to exhibit those qualities?

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Any fair observer must point out that the moderator, Bob Schieffer, was not only the best of the four moderators in the presidential and vice-presidential debates (including Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Tom Brokaw), but he was in an absolute sense near-perfect. He let the debaters go after each other and almost never interrupted points before they were completed. There were few irrelevancies, cheap shots, or gross misrepresentations of fact, at least few I picked up.

On issues and points, a few winners and losers:

On the McCain-is-just-an-extension-of-Bush issue: McCain tellingly unleashed a knockdown argument, culminating with “If you wanted to run against Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

On Obama’s associations, McCain finally – and perhaps inappropriately late in the campaign – hit Sen. Obama hard on his fuzzy representation of his relationship with terrorist Bill Ayers, but left out the depredations of Obama acquaintances Tony Rezko and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whom he has purposely ignored in this campaign for reasons unknown.

John McCain’s weakest line (interpolated): “I have no litmus test for the Supreme Court, but I wouldn’t support someone who supported Roe v. Wade.”

Sen. McCain’s best new argument: when Sen. Obama tried to hide his aversion to “drill now,” Sen. McCain pointed out that he (Obama) said only that he would ”LOOK at” offshore drilling, while implying he would pursue it. Such a dodge would be playing to Democratic anti-drilling supporters, which is somewhat of a redundancy.

Sen. McCain’s best new issue: Sen. Obama’s connection to ACORN, the community organizing group, accused by some of voter registration fraud across the country and forging economically irresponsible low-income housing. Obama was the group’s counsel at one point. Effective to bring up, though in a 3rd debate, probably not very.

John McCain’s weakest significant exchange: when asked about their vice-presidential candidates, Sen. Obama lauded Sen. Joe Biden in domestic and foreign affairs. Sen. McCain did not even mention Sarah Palin’s bona fides on the latter area which earlier in the campaign he called the signature issue of the election.

Sen. McCain argued persuasively that Sen. Obama’s solutions were all linked to government; at last this argument was clear, even if it is late to make it effective. They both used as a real example a plumber, Joe Wurzelbacher (“Joe the Plumber”) possibly soon to become an icon, to show why their tax plans were superior, but this was really just a way for Sen. Obama to say that beginning entrepreneurs would not be taxed much and for Sen. McCain to say that under his opponent such folks would be smothered by taxes. In post-debate interviews Joe was not impressed or reassured by Sen. Obama.

Understandable omission: no one attacked Sen. Obama’s or Gov Palin’s inexperience. Why? So no one would attack Gov. Palin and Sen. Obama’s inexperience. Sen. McCain, how could you have chosen her? I know; we’ve been through those woods.

In the end Obama seemed as if he were coached by the famous Chuck Noll whose great Super Bowl teams always played prevent defense in the fourth quarter because they were so far ahead. That’s to some extent what Obama did…he tried to say wherein he and Sen. McCain were similar (“We agree on most of these rescue plans for the middle class; I want to compliment you on your torture policy; Sarah Palin’s work is “commendable,” etc.); he never lost his cool, and he was always gracious. Sen. McCain was the boxer trying to win in the last round with haymakers, and he landed quite a few, but he probably should have found his comfortable style much earlier in the campaign. It wasn’t too little, but it was too late.

Debate winner: Sen. McCain
Your next president: Sen. Barack Obama

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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