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The Third Presidential Debate: October Surprise

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The Third Presidential Debate: October Surprise

Overshadowed by the global financial crisis is this list of notable recent events:

The gas prices at my local station are down to $2.77. Canadian (I’ll repeat that, Canadian) Prime Minister Stephen Harper led his Conservative (I’ll repeat that, Conservative) party to victory. Researchers in Juneau, Alaska reported the biggest glacier snow buildup since 1946. One of the most eloquent and staunch defenders of the Iraq war, Christopher Hitchens, has endorsed Barack Obama. And, if early reports are to be believed, Colin Powell is poised to do the same.

What the hell happened? These last few weeks, as I’ve watched John McCain morph from the tenacious “comeback kid” (I refuse to say “maverick”) into a laughable caricature, have me slumped on the couch shaking my head. I know there are many who’ll be only too happy to say, “I told you so” or “I knew it all the time.” But, as someone who has followed his career for fifteen years, seeing him play the role of “Republican candidate” has genuinely left me in a state of shock and awe. So much for hero worship.

My emotions are a little like Professor Richard Pierson’s near the end of another October surprise, Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast:

“My wife, my colleagues, my students, my books, my observatory, my ... my world ... where are they? Did they ever exist? Am I Richard Pierson? What day is it? Do days exist without calendars? Does time pass when there are no human hands left to wind the clocks?”

Okay. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic.

In a lot of my other posts on the election, I refer to a buddy of mine who has close ties to some Michigan GOP politicos. About an hour into Wednesday night’s final presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York I received a text message from him that simply read: “McCain is AWFUL…”

And he was. In the two shots network TV directors like to use, during Obama’s responses, McCain can be seen shifting impatiently in his seat and blinking continuously. He resembled Bob Hope straining to read the cue cards at one of those horrid Christmas specials made long after he should have hung it up. Obama was every bit his usual smooth, unruffled self. Although sometimes I think his laughing demeanor came across as a bit too self-assured. No one likes a glib winner.

McCain started out the night by repeating “people are unhappy” about thirty-seven times. The Obama mantra to cut the taxes of 95% of all Americans was repetitive too. He’s just better at it.

At the previous debate, McCain’s big announcement was his three hundred billion dollar mortgage bailout. On Wednesday, he introduced us to “Joe the Plumber.” Joseph Wurzelbacher is a blue collar worker from Ohio who talked briefly to Obama during a campaign visit in Toledo. Caught on video was an exchange between Wurzelbacher and Obama where the worker complained to the candidate that his plan to increase taxes for those earning more than $250,000 was hindering his ability to buy his own plumbing business. Obama’s response: “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” wasn’t very reassuring and gave one a glimpse under the cowl of his moderate persona.

As a result, Joe the Plumber’s fifteen minutes was the big news to come out of the debate. McCain tried to use Joe as the bludgeon with which to pound Obama as a tax-and-spend Democrat all evening. On paper it kinda made sense. Wurzelbacher was a living, breathing example of the typical “middle class” person that the populism of both Obama and McCain’s campaigns are targeting. Joe reminds me of my father. A Midwestern, blue collar, no bullshit, union truck driving guy (same name too).

Whether it be soap or presidential candidates, imaginary constructs such as yuppies, soccer moms, NASCAR dads, and latte liberals are constantly used as templates to guide the creation of marketing strategies. You’ve got to know to whom you’re trying to talk before creating the message.

Unfortunately, one seldom finds an actual real person who fits cleanly into such a model. And, alas, Wurzelbacher isn’t quite the plumber he seems to be. According to the Toledo Blade, it turns out that “Joe the plumber isn’t a plumber—at least not a licensed one, or a registered one. A check of state and local licensing agencies in Ohio and Michigan shows no plumbing licenses under Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher’s name, or even misspellings of his name.” He also owes back taxes and makes less than $250,000 a year.

Sigh.

Todd S. Purdum of Vanity Fair wrote a funny reminder about ads starring a working girl from the 1960’s, “Josephine the Plumber.”

“Am I the only American old enough to have pined for Jane Withers in last night’s final presidential debate? You know: the actress who played Jo-sephine the plumber in all those Comet ads of years ago? The former child star who was the sass to Shirley Temple’s sweetness, and later donned overalls and grabbed a wrench to tell you how to keep your sink clean?”

Moderator Bob Schiffer asked both candidates what they would cut out of their respective budgets given the current fiscal crisis. Of course, Obama was his usually elusive self on the topic. He only offered a “net spending cut and “pay as you go” plan for a number of new programs. He and McCain quibbled over whether it would take a hatchet or a scalpel. Beating the metaphor to death, McCain said he’d use a hatchet and THEN a scalpel. And then made constant references to the “American Dream.” That’s such a tired term (and this is coming from a guy who regularly wears an American flag baseball hat).

Speaking of scalpels, McCain’s position on the economy has taken more twists and turns than J.D. and Elliott’s relationship on Scrubs. It’s not clear how either of them will actually turn out (or if they even make sense at this point). Of course, I was surprised to hear Obama mention the name of Paul Volcker as one of his economic advisers. As Fed Chairman, Volcker presided over the highest unemployment levels since the Great Depression.

Obama hit the Ayers question out of the park. Clearly, as the New York Times reported, Obama has “downplayed” his association with the former terrorist. And I’m certain Obama did use that association, however loosely, as a means of career advancement. But the McCain/Palin charges just aren’t sticking. While I have no doubt that Obama is well left of center, he’s so NOT a Molotov Cocktail-throwing radical. Trying to fit him into that mold just doesn’t work. That was the intended irony in the recent New Yorker cartoon cover of Obama and his wife that had a lot of uptight people so up in arms.

Furthermore, McCain and Biden both have had a long time relationship with a former, old-fashioned, white sheet wearing, cross burning, Ku Klux Klanner. I’m speaking, of course, about the so-called “conscience of the senate,” Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia (I’ve never figured out why he’s gotten a free pass for that).

Commentators always look for the “gotcha quote” from one of the candidates to play over and over again (“There he goes again,” or “You’re no Jack Kennedy”). I find the whole thing cynically manufactured for television. That said, the night’s gotcha quote was McCain’s obviously scripted rejoinder to Obama, “I’m not President Bush, if you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have ran four years ago.” It did get somewhat of a response from the audience. Of course, Obama easily parried by expressing confusion because of McCain’s Bush-like voting record.

The running mate question did come up. Obama avoided any controversy by saying he’d let the people decide on Palin’s qualifications (must be above his pay grade). McCain, of course, was fine with Biden. He also comically referred to Palin as a “bresh of freth air.”

Nearing the end, I noted one of McCain’s more interesting proposals, “Troops to Teachers.” It’s a program to help eligible military personnel begin a new career as teachers. McCain was talking about streamlining the process to make it easier for veterans to get right into the classroom fresh from the battlefield without having to take any of those pesky certification tests and such. Hmmm.

Thursday night, I saw McCain give a great speech at the Al Smith Memorial dinner. He was relaxed, funny, cordial. Certainly nothing like the character he portrayed during the debates. McCain was even smiling! Where has this guy been since the convention?

My guess is that, freed from the pressure to win, he’s just being himself. Or, perhaps, like a dying Roy Scheider at the end of All That Jazz, having accepted his predestined fate, McCain is letting himself fall happily into the arms of a waiting Jessica Lange.

Who among us wouldn’t smile at that?

Note:

One of the conventional wisdoms of presidential debate history is the notion that during the 1960 debates, Kennedy won with television viewers, while the people who heard the debates on radio, thought Nixon had won.

Not true, says Mark Blummenthal at Pollster.com.

He points out that not a lot of real radio polling was actually done. And the research that was conducted is questionable. He cites two sources.

Steven Chafee, a professor of communications at the University of California Santa Barbara:

“By 1960, those who could listen to debates only on radio were far from a random lot. Situated for the most part in remote rural areas, they were overwhelmingly Protestants and skeptical of Kennedy as a Roman Catholic candidate.”

University of Minnesota Political Scientist James N. Druckman:

“Put another way, relative to television viewers, radio listeners may have been predisposed to favor Nixon over Kennedy. This lack of reliable causal evidence means that a prime example of the power of television images may be nothing more than “telemythology.”

Geez, what more do they want to take away from me? This is Carl Phillips reporting from Grovers Mill, New Jersey.

Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.