Barack Obama, John McCain – and Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher – took center stage at Hofstra University on Long Island last night, making the final presidential debate in this campaign the best of the general election season. Finally, the much-anticipated “YouTube moments” arrived, and both campaigns can claim to have scored points. Whether voters make up their minds based on debate scorecards is another matter.
McCain came out on the offense early, and as boxing-minded commentators will probably say, he landed a few jabs.
The Republican’s change of attitude was clear from the start. He purposely looked at his rival across the table and addressed him directly through the night. Among his early good moments was his much-awaited chance to differentiate himself from President George W. Bush. After Obama resorted to his usual “history lesson” and mentioned the current administration had greatly increased the national deficit, McCain quickly retorted, “If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I’m going to give a new direction to this economy and this country.”
Obama seemed a bit taken aback by McCain’s aggressive start, but sticking to his usual lines and playing a conservative defense game, he seemed to avoid committing any serious mistakes.
Then came Joe — a name that will probably stay in our Google and YouTube searches for a while. By one count, he got at least thirteen mentions in the first part of the debate. Soon enough, a Twitter user named PlumberJoe had been created. [Here’s a video of Joe with Obama and on the phone with Fox News.]
McCain brought up Joe, an Ohio plumber that had met Obama a few days ago.
Barack Obama answering a question from Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher
in Holland, Ohio last Sunday. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong.)
According to McCain, Joe -no relation to Joe Sixpack- would fall into a higher tax bracket under his rival’s proposals. The Republican promised to keep the plumber’s taxes low and provide him with affordable health care for him and his employees. McCain also said Obama would take Joe’s money to “spread the wealth around,” which he deemed “class warfare.”
Those early attacks seem to fluster the usually-cool Democratic candidate, but he came back at McCain on the “Joe” situation later on. After McCain repeated his standard line about the Democrat’s plan to fine companies which don’t provide health coverage to their employees, Obama looked at the camera and told Joe: “Here’s your fine: zero,” going on to explain that his plan exempts small businesses.
McCain looked stunned for a few seconds after that, and responded “Hey Joe, you’re rich, congratulations.”
The debate moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS, engaged the candidates on topics that had been missing from earlier debates, such as the likely possibility that the next president will appoint at least one new justice to the Supreme Court, the candidates’ positions on abortion, and the rough tone of the attacks that have taken place in the campaign recently.
Regarding the latter, McCain brought up Obama’s links to former Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers, insisting that the relationship “needs to be explained.” Obama seemed to respond solidly on the matter, saying he had “roundly condemned” Ayers’ past acts and added that Ayers hasn’t been involved in his campaign and would not be involved in an Obama administration.
He also seemed to give a balanced and direct answer to the accusations that his campaign is linked to possible voter fraud by the organization Acorn. “Apparently what they’ve done is they were paying people to go out and register folks, and apparently some of the people who were out there didn’t really register people, they just filled out a bunch of names,” he said, adding those workers “had nothing to do with us.”
The candidates also got a chance to scold each other for what their surrogates and supporters have been saying and doing on the stump. McCain claimed he had repudiated all remarks that could have offended Obama and that his rival hadn’t done the same. This seemed a bit of a stretch, since McCain only frowned slightly when supporters at one of his rallies yelled “Terrorist” and “Kill him!” at the mention of Obama’s name.
Obama reminded McCain that. “When people suggest that I’m palling arround with terrorists, then we’re not talking about issues,” he said, quoting one of VP candidate Sarah Palin’s frequent lines of attack.
That was when the only mention to immigration in the four general campaign debates occurred. McCain complained that his position on this issue had been misrepresented by the Democratic campaign, without explaining what his position is. Obama, as has been the case throughout the campaign, didn’t enter those muddy waters either. And so an issue that’s important to millions of voters -especially in battleground states- remained unaddressed once more.
Another area in which McCain seemed to be successful was in painting his rival as a tax-and-spend liberal, with the emphasis on “spend.” He took Obama to task whenever the Democrat mentioned a potential new expenditure and promised in his final statement to be “a careful steward of your tax dollars.”
Both in his final summation and throughout the debate, Obama mostly stuck to his usual lines. He vowed not to adopt “the same failed policies and politics” of the last eight years, appealed to a renewed “spirit of sacrifice, service and responsibility,” and promised to bring “fundamental change.”
Overall, the final presidential debate showed voters a more stark contrast between the two candidates without offering any news about their positions on the issues. The rhetoric intensified as John McCain went on the attack to try to reverse his slide in the polls. Obama seemed to counter that strategy by remaining calm through the night. But, as we said, scorecards are probably not the most important thing right now.
What’s more relevant is whether either of the candidates successfully locked up the votes of Joe The Plumber and undecided voters in the deeply-worried American middle class.