W(h)ither America 2008: The Third and Final Presidential Debate

Pundit Josh Fischel breaks down last night’s tussle between Obama and McCain and finds it oddly analogous with the season finale of Project Runway (which he totally had to miss to watch the debate).

Last night, I sat through the final debate of the 2008 presidential election cycle.  Between the Democratic and Republican primaries and now the general campaign, we’ve had more of these exchanges than at any point in modern memory.  We should, by now, have a full measure of the two remaining candidates.

In the interests of debate-watching purity, I decided to start watching right when it began at 9 and to stop watching when the debate ended at 10:30, so I wouldn’t be biased by any of the talking points (or even, dare I say, the objective observations of trained journalists) of the various networks.  I don’t know who won according to the snap polls.  I didn’t follow any of the live blogging efforts online, and I watched NBC, since they don’t have the insipid applause-line graphs, measuring the relationship between certain words and the joy or sadness of a roomful of dismally undecided voters stuck in some toss-up state. 

So, with that, here’s what I thought: this was by far the most interesting and telling debate of the three between McCain and Obama. McCain had an actual strategy this time; it was clear that he had been coached to say certain zingers, and for the first ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes of the debate, he seemed to have Obama on the defensive.  The most unfortunate thing about McCain’s performance was how it could be summarized in the following sentence: Joe the Plumber is hurt and angry that you want to spread the wealth around.  If he’d used those phrases only initially, and then moved off his canned and forced delivery to more substantive and genuine points, he may have maintained that early lead.  Instead, it became clear that those were the only punches he had, and he continued throwing them until it was obvious that he was merely flailing.

Obama, meanwhile, continued to be unflappable.  He took each of McCain’s criticisms and simply and elegantly explained why McCain was mischaracterizing his positions.  It reminded me—and here I will probably reveal too much information about myself—of either the second or third season of Project Runway. (And honestly, Federal Election Commission: you had to make me choose between last night’s season five finale and the final debate, even though LeAnne was probably as much of a foregone conclusion as Obama is at this point?)  Andrae, the bald and oft-distraught designer, is having a crying jag on the runway, rambling about his dreams; nearby, Santino, the crazy but usually serene designer, can’t help but giggle at Andrae’s outburst.  And that’s what the debate last night made me think of.  McCain, frustrated and unhappy and trying to attack Obama on any number of things that have been used against him countless times before, is Andrae.  Obama, for the most part keeping it together but every once in a while snickering at his opponent’s effort, is Santino.

Both candidates defaulted to pandering on occasion.  When asked to speak about his vice-presidential pick, Obama started dropping the g’s on his gerunds, as in Biden is workin’, helpin’, and fightin’ for the little guy and workin’ families.  When McCain was asked to describe Palin, he called her a role model to reformers (for the abuse of power thing, no doubt) and women (for no other reason that I can see than that she is one), and then went straight to the special needs angle (BTW, how could she know more about raising a special needs kid than pretty much anyone McCain knows?  She’s only had Trig around for six months now). 

Later, McCain corrected himself four times when talking, I think, about education.  Here was the progression: kids, children, precious children, precious children with autism.  I could sound like I care, too, if I brought up dogs, cute and furry dogs, cute and furry puppies, cute and furry puppies rescued from Hurricane Ike, and then cute and furry puppies rescued from Hurricane Ike who now broker peace in Iraq by licking the faces of adorable Iraqi children.

But those are just words.  McCain, oddly, relied on rhetoric and eloquence to match Obama’s calm and substance.  To the surprise of exactly no one, it was not a success.

I thought Obama’s strongest answers were in addressing health care and in dispatching the Ayers and ACORN nonsense.  Here’s one (hopefully last) point I will make on Ayers.  This man was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “top lieutenants” and was just sentenced to fifteen years in prison for screwing his own daughter.  Jesse Jackson, another King disciple, just put his foot in his mouth again, describing how Israel will lose its power over American foreign policy in an Obama administration (not true, of course, or else I wouldn’t be supporting the man).  Now, since MLK Jr. associated himself with such disreputable people who say and do such destructive things, shouldn’t we reconsider having a national holiday named after him?  I mean, if King hung around with these people, is he really the kind of historical figure we ought to be celebrating? 

Just as we recognized King’s greatness in the context of history, we need to elect the leader who is right for this moment.  Obama made it clear last night that he’s conscious of process, that he’s thinking of the long term, and that he’s serene in a turbulent time.  McCain’s wild-eyed thrashing about—not only physically, but on policy—led him to say that he’ll take a hatchet and a scalpel to the government (as if we needed to give him more weaponry), that he’ll be able to balance the budget in his first term, that he’ll drill and drill and then build nuclear plants, and that he doesn’t want bills loaded with any more gifts to planetariums, however necessary those gifts might be (and let the record show that I think there’s something deeply creepy about the way McCain says “goodies”). 

There were points last night when Obama looked at McCain with this expression of, I thought, utter sadness.  This was supposed to be the first presidential campaign that finally didn’t have to resort to smears and name-calling and crowd-inciting, because McCain and Obama were both men of substance.  After these three debates, one of them still is.

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.