To begin with some meta-commentary, I need to reiterate that it’s so shallow and annoying all the first “thank yous” that happen during the initial question at every debate in every cycle. It’d be nice if both candidates could just agree not to do that anymore. It’s so unnecessary and forced. Obama thoughtlessly rattling through all of them “…and thank you Bob” was the most phony-sounding example yet. Again, the debate format needs to be reformed listening to these. Why have three debates of rattling off the same talking points again? Instead of three repetitive debates like that, there ought to be more regulation. One debate on nothing but foreign policy, one on domestic, and maybe one town hall where the common people ask questions about specifics based on the answers from the earlier debates.
Anyway, McCain goes off on a bizarre tangent about “Joe the Plumber” (I imagine he was a good plumber too) whom Obama has supposedly met. He even interrupts Obama at one point to say “we’re talking about Joe the Plumber!” It comes off as pretty desperate and silly to me. It’s a forced “Obama is gonna raise taxes on average Americans like Joe the Plumber” attack. Obama counters it with a simple “well, I don’t mind paying a little more.” That, and the fact that this was a desperate time where the people realized maybe higher taxes might just have a purpose helped this stupid attack fail. Again, talking about lowering taxes as a way to solve the recession was completely tone deaf. It’s vacuous pandering like that which is why FDR won out in a landslide against Hoover and Landon. When times are bad and people are out of work, lowering taxes is like giving a lollipop to someone with a broken leg. People want the government to step in and do something in desperate times like that, not the typical Republican “I’m gonna keep taxes low so you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” platitudes.
Similarly, McCain going off on “the greatest increase in spending since the Great Society!” seems a misguided attack. People generally loved the New Deal and Great Society programs, and again, people want helpful programs like that when times are bad. Had Obama actually had the political acumen and negotiating skills to get a new New Deal/Great Society passed, he would be beloved by nearly all today. Certainly by me, perhaps even in spite of his support of NSA surveillance. It’s the fact that he didn’t, not even close, that’s why many progressives like myself consider him a disappointment in hindsight.
McCain was smart to distance himself from Bush: “Senator Obama, I’m not George Bush. If you wanted to run against him, you should have ran four years ago.” That was admittedly a good line. And I think, if any Republican had a chance in hell in 2008, it was McCain the (supposed) maverick. It’s only a testament to how loathed Bush was, and what a brilliant campaign juggernaut Obama was, (along with Palin being such a joke,) that McCain lost in such a landslide. McCain painstakingly lists all the issues he disagrees with Republicans on, which I also feel was an effective tactic. Perhaps if all candidates did that off the bat it might alleviate some of the partisanship and tying people to the actions of past presidents from the same party. We might get a more practical dialogue about ideas not labels.
I feel like the whole “are you willing to say what your ads have said to your opponent’s face?” question had the potential to be a good one, but they both more or less sidestepped it and then went on to play the blame game. “you paid more money for negative ads!”/”all your ads are negative!”/”the tone of your rallies is negative!” WHO CARES?!? I just think this is so unhelpful and so petty. Of course there’s going to be negative ads, and overzealous people at rallies–we have proof this was so as far back as the electoral contests of Adams and Jefferson. It’s just a stupid topic to waste valuable debate time on; neither is going to apologize or take responsibility even if it was warranted so why bring it up? And considering both this 2016 cycle and historical precedent I recall the 2008 general election being pretty tame. The worst, most below the belt attack that year was the Obama in a turban photo and that was Hillary’s doing in the primaries. (She also implied he could get assassinated as a defense for staying in the race so long, but no it’s the Bernie supporters who were inflammatory, got it.)
ASIDE: Similarly, Hillary’s attack against Sanders, that he supposedly doesn’t care about the Sandy Hook families just because he doesn’t support the parents’ ridiculous lawsuit against gun manufacturers is probably the single sleaziest attack I’ve ever seen in any campaign. Be it primary or general, Republican or Democrat, in the modern era. I would have loved to see some iteration of this question asked in the 2016 primary cycle, with that in mind, and watch her try to weasel out of it.
The next question “would your running mate do a better job guiding the country than his running mate?” seems a little unfair. By this point, Palin’s stupidity was basically the sole topic driving the narrative of the election. This seemed like an excuse to allow Obama to get that shot in, and to force McCain to defend her and therefore tie himself closer to a person even he knew by then was toxic. I suppose it’s a valid question in itself (though it has never been asked before or since in any cycle) but in context there was no way McCain could come out of that looking good. He does the best he possibly could have, talking about how she’s a model to women and she cares about autism. Obama is given the chance to attack her directly (the mod asks: “do YOU think she’s qualified?”) but he goes easy on her, saying it’s up to the American people and commending Palin for her work on special needs kids. That was both classy and smart: again even in these “woke” times, it’s still bad optics for a man to be seen as going too rough on a woman. And really, it’d be cruel and unnecessary to knock someone who was already down, as far as favorable coverage was concerned.
McCain doesn’t return the favor when asked the same about Biden, attacking his “wrong” opinion for wanting to divide Iraq in three countries. Funnily enough, I think Biden is totally dead on if that’s really what he wants to do. Iraq is an artificial country drawn up by Britain and France 100 years ago with no thought to the people living there. Dividing it into Sunni, Shiite and Kurd spheres of influence would be the best way to fix the mess that country is, has always, and will always be. This attack was also very tone deaf like a lot of McCain’s talking points and most of his campaign. Finally, McCain surely had the presence of mind to realize Obama just sacrificed a gift-wrapped attack, and the fact that he couldn’t be bothered to return the courtesy struck me as unsportsmanlike. We all know this question was primarily aimed at him and Palin, we all know Obama did him a favor by dodging the question. To take the bait himself made McCain look very mean-spirited in my opinion.
McCain brings the Joe Plumber nonsense back towards the end again. I think his campaign must have told him it was a good idea to put Obama’s supposed “wealth redistribution” in human terms by creating this character who could be used as a framing device. It fails spectacularly though and just comes off as tone deaf. Where Obama is describing his plan (in terms that didn’t come to fruition) in detail, McCain is talking in vacuous platitudes and emotional appeals without the skill to pull them off.
While I’m at it, I think McCain’s “empowering the individual” narrative completely falls apart with his stand on abortion. If it’s wrong for the government to “take” your money and decide what to do with it,” as he phrases the issue, then why is it ok for government to take your bodily autonomy away and determine you have to carry a pregnancy to term for 9 agonizing months plus the pain of delivery against your own will? It’s faulty logic, trying to have your cake and eat it too, talk a big talk about personal empowerment when it suits you but then fall back on “government knows best!” when it curbs a behavior you don’t like. This is the Achilles’ heel that exposes the hypocrisy of the “bootstraps” ideology many supposed “individual liberty” Republicans hold. And speaking of abortions…god DAMN we’ve made such little progress in all these decades. Abortion is a topic that’s never going away, folks. Not in our lifetimes. Probably the single most polarizing topic there is, and every election the candidates go through this same song and dance about it. It’s really annoying. The Court decided the issue decades ago; it’s done. Like it or not, it’s over. Let it go. Making it illegal again is only going to lead to unsafe back alley abortions that also hurt or kill the mother, not to mention a lot of unwanted unloved children with no safety net to support them and resentful, unhappy mothers with squandered potential all because they dared to have sex. (Or had the misfortune to get raped.)