John McCain promised to kick Barack Obama's "you know what" on Wednesday night. He hinted that he'd bring up former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers and worse. Instead McCain bludgeoned Obama with Joe the Plumber, and the effect was more farce than fierce.
McCain mentioned the now-famous plumber, Joe Wurzelbacher, an apparently wealthy Toledo businessman who complained he'd pay more taxes under Obama's plan, more than he talked about Sarah Palin or Osama bin Laden, by far. Midway through the 90-minute conversation, Obama was addressing Joe the Plumber, too. And it was clear by then that McCain had lost three straight debates.
McCain was a little bit less grumpy than in earlier matchups. He never once called Obama "that one," and he even made eye contact with him more than once. But he couldn't control his sarcasm. His worst move was ridiculing Obama's support for abortion rights measures that protect "the health of the mother." He sneered out the words, "health of the mother," and actually framed them in air quotes. His standing with women was already plummeting; watch it drop more from here.
McCain's take on the economic crisis was likewise tin-eared. He again promised a spending freeze, which most economists believe would be a terrible move during a recession, and said he'd first take a hatchet, then a scalpel to the federal budget, which sounded a little deranged. He kept talking about "angry" voters, and again, he sounded angry, a little bit too angry. He did bring up Bill Ayers, as well as the claim by civil rights hero John Lewis that the McCain-Palin campaign is fostering a climate of racial division and even violence. The two men's exchange over the tenor of the campaign wound up being one of Obama's finest moments, and one of McCain's worst.
Obama defended Lewis as a "hero," while noting that Lewis himself had backed away from the statement a bit, and then criticized McCain for tolerating rallies where backers scream "terrorist" and "traitor." That pushed McCain into declaring flatly: "I'm proud of the people who come to our rallies. I'm not going to stand for them saying that the people who come to our rallies are anything other than the most patriotic great citizens." (I can't wait to see that clip spliced along with ugly moments at McCain-Palin rallies; someone's working on that now, I promise.) Overall, McCain, who's run the most negative campaign of the two, sounded like the biggest whiner. He complained about trying to watch an Arizona Cardinals football game on Sunday, but "Every other ad was an attack ad on my healthcare plan." Poor John.
As usual Obama was calm, measured, reassuring. I loved their exchange over Obama's reservations about a free-trade agreement with Colombia, the importance of which McCain insisted Obama didn't really understand. "Actually, I understand it pretty well," Obama replied. "Labor leaders have been targeted for assassination. We have to stand for human rights and make sure violence isn't being perpetrated against workers who are organizing for their rights." Imagine a president who can think that well on his feet, and who'll stand up for workers' rights.
McCain's less-bad debate performance won't change the downward arc of his campaign. The latest Los Angeles Times poll found him trailing Obama by 9 points, and also showed that Sarah Palin is driving more voters away from McCain than she was pulling in. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Republican National Committee is cutting off presidential advertising in Maine and Wisconsin, to focus on states like Colorado, Missouri, Indiana and Virginia. McCain needed a big win, and I haven't heard anyone yet who thought he got it. CNN poll: Obama 58, McCain 31.