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The third and final debate of the 2008 presidential campaign is now history. It is pointless here to ask why, during a campaign that runs about half as long as the office it is run for, only three debates between the final major contenders are held. It is equally pointless to ask why they need to be so carefully structured as to reach a point of near-terminal boredom. For whatever reason, that is what the U.S. serves up, so that is what the citizens must somehow stomach.
Round three ended with the Republican candidate John McCain looking increasingly like a testy, cantankerous old man. His dwindling number of die-hard supporters called him ‘feisty,’ while everyone else, including the numerous so-called ‘swing’ voters, merely found him disagreeable and annoying.
As he ranted and raved, mocked and harassed, his opponent, Senator Barack Obama, sat quietly looking presidential, an impression he has successfully been able to portray throughout much of the campaign.
During the campaign, Mr. McCain has repeatedly sent confused messages to his far-right base, messages which resonate well with the already converted, but leave most shoppers with a bad taste in their mouths. As he and the strident Gov. Palin attempt to drive home the concept that Mr. Obama’s work on the same charity board as one-time Weather Underground radical activist William Ayers somehow makes Mr. Obama at least partly responsible for the bombs Mr. Ayers threw when the senator was eight years old, their adoring crowds go wild. That is evidenced by their shrieking ‘terrorist’, ‘abomination’, and ‘kill him’ at the mention of Mr. Obama’s name. The result: more and more people see Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin negatively.
But Mr. McCain will not tolerate such outbursts. As he tries to be heard over the shouts of his loyal supporters who call for Mr. Obama’s head, and proclaims that Mr. Obama is a decent man who the people need not fear, he is booed.
But wait; was he really denouncing these outbursts? Mr. Obama brought them up at this last sleep-fest, and Mr. McCain, full of all the indignation his aged being could muster, proclaimed that his supporters were the finest people in America.
Can we step back for just a minute and try to sort this all out? First, Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin try to link Mr. Obama with a former terrorist (that characterization of Mr. Ayers could stand some clarification, but we will leave that alone for now). Then, when the crowds buy in and demand his blood, Mr. McCain declares that Mr. Obama is a decent man who no one need fear. When Mr. Obama confronts Mr. McCain with these outbursts, Mr. McCain defends those who bellow them.
Playing the fear card that has worked so well for his hero, President George Bush, Mr. McCain decided to attack ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. This group has come under investigation for possible irregularities in registering people, mostly low-income Democrats, to vote. Mr. McCain demands to know the extent of Mr. Obama’s connections with ACORN. Mr. McCain warns darkly that ACORN’s activities are potentially ‘destroying the fabric of democracy.’
One might ask Mr. McCain just what he was doing when the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the democratic decision of the U.S. voters in 2000 and installed Mr. Bush in the White House. The fabric of democracy appeared to be wearing somewhat thin at that point, and has been stretch to its limit as Mr. Bush has spent eight years trampling the Constitution, but those facts appear to have escaped Mr. McCain’s attention.
Mr. Obama has been quite open about his connection with ACORN; in 1995 he was a member of a team of lawyers who represented that organization in a lawsuit filed against the state of Illinois. ACORN’s goal was to make voter registration easier. This year, during the primaries, a group with some ties to ACORN was hired to help increase voter turnout. Hardly an organization in Mr. Obama’s back pocket.
Mrs. Palin, too, busy winking at her audience, hailing Joe Sixpack, ‘mavericking’ up a storm and pointing a shotgun at her pregnant daughter’s reluctant boyfriend somehow found time to play the fear card as well. Who, she demands to know, is Barack Obama? What do we know of him? Is it enough? What should we know about him that we don’t?
Most pundits who stayed awake through the third debate commented on Mr. Obama’s appeal to swing voters, and Mr. McCain’s cementing of his already cement-footed base. But he seemed unable to topple his opponent from his presidential perch. He accused him of allowing babies to die by voting against a bill that would have required medical care for babies who survive abortions. This bill was proposed during Mr. Obama’s time as a State Senator in Illinois. Mr. Obama’s response: Such medical care is already mandated by Illinois law. The bill he voted against had other objectionable provisions in it, and the medical provision for abortion survivors was not necessary.
He approved $3,000,000.00 for an overhead projector for a museum in Illinois, said Mr. McCain disdainfully. Oh, by the way, there was a building attached to that projector.
Watch Mr. Obama’s words carefully, said Mr. McCain sagely; he said ‘look into’ offshore drilling. Mr. McCain chooses to ignore the reality that if massive offshore drilling were to begin today it would be at least ten years before any effect was seen in oil and gas supplies, and there is not enough oil available there to make it worth while anyway. And Mr. Obama supports some offshore drilling.
Hopefully, the U.S. voter learned something from these exchanges. Are there, perhaps, larger lessons to be learned by current and future politicians?
Perhaps there are, but whether or not the people who need to learn them were paying attention is doubtful. Two fairly obvious lessons will be highlighted here.
Trashing your opponent wins few points. Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin have tried in vain to paint Mr. Obama as a dangerous unknown, someone who the U.S. voters install in the White House at their peril. Yet as the Republican ticket gets nastier and nastier, Mr. McCain’s approval rating and likeability rating decrease.
Discussing issues important to the voters does win points. Mr. McCain often proclaims that he will veto bills containing ‘pork,’ that time-honored method members of Congress have of providing some usually obscure but often costly benefit to their home district by inserting it into some major bill. ‘Pork,’ Mr. McCain seems to believe, is the bane of the average voter.
Mr. Obama, on the other hand, discusses the health care crisis, the imploding economy, home foreclosures and unemployment, and lists means he would utilize to combat these problems. Whether or not he is able to do so successfully will only be known if and when he becomes president. But at least he speaks to the issues of most concern to the general public.
The U.S. is less than three weeks from the election. Indications at this point are that the voters will elect the first African-American president in history. However, that is far from a sure thing. The Bradley effect, that tendency for people to say they will vote for an African-American but actually will not and do not, may have a great impact. Hopefully it will be countered by an overwhelming turnout of Democratic voters.
How useful the debates have been is unknown; most polls have not shown significant shifts in public opinion following any them, but rather have indicated a slow eroding of support for the Republican ticket, and a corresponding growth of support for the Democrats. But at this point, most of the voters should have decided; the differences between the two candidates are stark, and fence-sitting would not seem to be a reasonable activity for anyone who follows the campaign even casually. It is to be hoped, for the sake of the U.S. and the world, that Mr. Obama is victorious on Election Day. A different outcome will only prove disastrous.
ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.