Final debate, Hofstra University in Long Island. McCain’s last chance to turn things around, if the Obama campaign’s carefully disseminated talking points memo is to be believed, which it apparently has been by most of its recipients at the networks.
Pundits upon pundits today have piled an avalanche of advice on McCain for tonight: stay on the economy, stay on Obama’s character, keep Rev. Wright on the table, keep Rev. Wright off the table, and so on. Frankly, I’ve given up trying to predict what McCain’s going to go with tonight, though I can’t say I’m optimistic about his chances, given that tonight’s debate doesn’t look to be any more spontaneous than the previous two snooze-fests; a condition that favors Obama. (I’m surfing past Fox News Channel now, on which Bill O’Reilly and Brit Hume are both complaining about how the formats for the other two debates were so full of strictures and constraints that spontaneity of any kind was a practical impossibility.)
No co-livebloggers in DC this evening; this time it’s just me and my flatscreen back home.
Full liveblog, wrap-up, links, and an UPDATE below the break.
9:00 Scene opens. Commentator says debate will be primarily on the economy and domestic policy. I have my doubts. Bob Schieffer starts talking; my eyelids are already drooping.
9:02 Candidates come out. A little warmer toward each other this time…no tight smiles. Signs of a different tone this evening? A little more loose and relaxed, maybe? Dare I hope…?
9:03 Schieffer summarizes their respective economic plans, asks “why yours is better.” McCain gives a shout out to Nancy Reagan in the hospital. Says Americans are angry, yadda yadda. Says Schieffer went over the long-term fixes, wants to identify some short-term ones. Hits Fannie and Freddie, says must halt decline in home ownership. Floats his proposal to buy up home mortgages again; expresses disappointment that Paulson hasn’t jumped on this facet of the crisis.
9:05 Obama invokes Great Depression. Stresses taxpayers getting their money back, slams CEOs. Says fundamentals of the economy were weak beforehand. Will punish companies who ship jobs overseas (won’t help if it still costs a fortune in corporate taxes to keep them here, Senator). Falls back on energy and health care.
9:07 McCain invokes Joe Wurzelbacher…nice! Recounts his conversation with Obama, and how Obama all but said he’d tax him to death. Asks why he couldn’t just say he wouldn’t. Contrasts his tax-cut proposals with “what you want to do with Joe the Plumber.” Obama clearly saw this coming, because he gets off the subject of Joe the Plumber just as soon as he can, says McCain will cut taxes for huge corporations, cites his “tax cut to 95% of families” mathematical and logical impossibility again.
9:10 McCain comes back with the “spread the wealth” gaffe. Says he wants Joe the Plumber to spread his own wealth around, not Obama. “Why would you want to increase anybody’s taxes right now?” Obama counters with 95% impossibility again. Talks about his friend Warren Buffett and Exxon Mobil (McCain: “I’m talking about Joe the Plumber!”). The subject is still on Joe’s taxes, which favors McCain.
9:13 McCain says our corp tax rate is 35%, while Ireland’s is 11%. McCain is doing well on the economic message, and he has Joe the Plumber to thank.
9:14 Question regarding bailout and cutting back to accommodate it. Obama talks about going through the budget “line by line” again, without identifying anything, as he has before. Hasn’t included anything about accommodating his own new spending, let alone the bailout. Investing in alternative energy, investing in our children’s future, yadda yadda.
9:16 McCain says “I wanna get back to home ownership,” and he does, bailout question be damned. Schieffer prompts him to get back to topic, and he launches into energy independence (all kinds of alternative tech). Talks about an across the board spending freeze; pooh-poohs Obama’s “hatchet” metaphor, says that’s what we need before a scalpel. Says he has a history of cutting spending. Schieffer asks for examples. Mentions eliminating ethanol subsidies (goodbye, Iowa), history of cutting pork — goes through Obama pork list — and other individual examples. Obama dismisses spending freeze as a gimmick and says hatchet is not what’s needed. Still manages to avoid getting specific. I propose a drinking game: do a shot every time Obama says “last eight years.” Starts to slam Bush instead of McCain.
9:20 McCain: “I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.” A little applause from audience! Defends across the board freeze, says Giuliani did it in NYC. Says Obama voted for the energy bill “full of goodies for the oil companies.” Man, he is doing a LOT better tonight. Challenges Obama to name one time he stood up to leaders of his party.
9:22 Obama mentions tort reform and charter schools. Says he’s got a history of reaching across the aisle (will McCain bring up National Journal ranking?). Brings up Bush again. McCain says it’s “very clear” he’s stood up to Bush numerous times “and I’ve got the scars to prove it” (nice POW reference). Ticks off a list of differences he’s had with Bush.
9:24 Schieffer brings up nasty campaigning. Goes through alleged hateful stuff. (I can imagine Quin Hillyer putting on his “Shaddup, Bob” face now.) McCain says we could have had a different tone if Obama had agreed to at least some of the 10 debates he proposed for last summer. Rips into Rep. John Lewis for the George Wallace comparison, and scolds Obama for not repudiating them (yet). Says Obama has spent more money on negative ads than anyone in history “and I can prove it.” Hits Obama for breaking his public financing promise.
9:28 Obama goes to a poll saying people think McCain’s more negative than him (weak). Says 100% of McCain’s ads have been negative? (WTF?) Hits ads from 527s, despite the fact that McCain has repudiated all help from 527s, all but begging them to back off. Goes back to tying McCain to Bush. Segues into sending kids to college. McCain talks about watching Arizona Cardinals game and seeing every other commercial attacking him. Goes back to “unprecedented” negative attack ad expenditures. Brings up Joe the Plumber again (man, McCain owes him a no-work Cabinet position for that clip!). Obama stresses that Lewis’s statement was unprompted by his campaign. Points up statement he issued that Wallace comparison was inappropriate. Laments voter “cynicism.” Brings up Palin’s “pal around with terrorists” line.
9:33 McCain defends the thousands at his rallies and refuses to take responsibility for isolated cranks yelling horrible things; says same thing happens at Obama rallies, makes oblique reference to t-shirts (whatever could he be talking about?). Obama backs off of the topic…perhaps he thinks he’s not getting enough mileage out of it? Or maybe he knows about the t-shirts, and sees a can of worms he doesn’t want to open…
9:35 McCain brings up Obama’s associations, including ACORN’s enormous rash of voter fraud. Schieffer turns it to Obama, who says Ayers has been the centerpiece of the McCain campaign. Calls him a professor of education. Talks about Chicago Annenberg Challenge, names Republicans connected to the board. Denies involvement with ACORN except motor-voter case as an attorney. Names some names who will be his advisors in the White House. McCain brings up Woods Fund, where he and Ayers sent money to ACORN. Mentions Ayers 2001 interview with NYTimes. Takes issue with refusal of Obama to reveal details of his associations. Cuts off the topic by segueing elsewhere but Schieffer moves on for him.
9:40 Question regarding running mates. Obama praises Biden to the skies, says his foreign policy cred is superhuman, says he “never forgot where he came from.” Says he “fights for the little guy” (read: “I am not a snooty elitist”). Goes back to corporation-bashing. Talks about energy independence without saying the words “Exxon Mobil” (miraculous!). McCain says Americans have “gotten to know Sarah Palin,” calls her a role model for women. Ticks off her reformer and small-government cred. Faced down oil companies in pipeline deal. “Breath of fresh air,” yadda yadda. Adds on how she understands “special needs families,” including autism. Swelling with pride, says husband’s a “pretty tough guy too.”
9:43 Obama on Palin: capable woman, excited the base of the GOP. Says autism will “require additional funding if we’re going to get serious,” says that’s incompatible with spending freeze. McCain on Biden: qualified in many ways, but wrong on so many things, especially on foreign policy. Cites “cockamamie idea” of dividing up Iraq into ethnic enclaves. Goes back to Obama’s point on autism, says with him it’s always “spend more, spend more…why do we always have to spend more?”
9:46 Schieffer brings up climate change, but makes the question about foreign oil dependence. Asks for specific number for reduction in foreign oil imports in first term. McCain says eliminate imports from Middle East and Venezuela. Canada’s fine; hits Obama on “unilaterally renegotiating” NAFTA. Ticks off long list again of different techs to concentrate on for alt fuels. Says 8 or 10 years we can eliminate foreign imports. Obama also cites 10-year number. Says “nothing’s more important than our borrowing [billions] from China and sending it to Saudi Arabia.” Says we should expand domestic production; thinks best way is to force companies to drill in already-leased areas (nothing there, genius). Makes offhand concession that we should “look at” offshore drilling but goes immediately to “can’t drill our way out of the problem” trope. Takes McCain’s bait on NAFTA; doesn’t repudiate “unilateral renegotiation,” which McCain should jump on.
9:51 McCain “admires Sen. Obama’s eloquence,” and says we have to look at his words carefully. Says it’s not enough to “look at” offshore drilling…need to do it, and do it now. Defends NAFTA, also comes to defense of Colombia (“Sen. Obama has never traveled south of our border”). Says free trade with Colombia is a “no-brainer,” suggests he travel down there. Obama brings up targeting of labor leaders in Colombia and implicitly justifies opposition to Colombian free trade agreement that way. Proposes loan guarantees for U.S. automakers (read: “Please vote for me, Michigan!”); says that and retooling plants to make fuel efficient cars will create 5,000 new jobs.
9:55 McCain says Sen. Obama doesn’t want a trade agreement with our closest South American ally, but will sit down without precondtions with Hugo Chavez. Says last president to restrict trade during an economic downturn was Herbert Hoover.
9:56 Schieffer goes to health care. Obama goes straight to a sob-story anecdote about desperate people without coverage. Says he can cut average families’ premiums by $2,500/year. If you’re not covered, buy into same federal program federal employees have (yikes! what a behemoth program that’ll be!). Says it “will cost some money up front”…you think? McCain: says it’s escalating costs that are inflicting such pain…you think? Says we need more community health clinics, physicial fitness/nutrition programs in school to cut child obesity, companies reward employees that join a health club or otherwise take measures to stay healthy. Mentions $5,000 tax credit. Shout out to Joe the Plumber again, says if you don’t do exactly as you’re told when you buy that business, Sen. Obama will find you, still wants to know what the fine will be if a small business can’t afford his program. Obama says a small business will have NO fine, but large businesses that can afford it will. (Of course, companies that can afford it will just absorb the fine as the cost of doing business.) Says McCain’s plan will not be enough for older or less healthy people who need to pay more for health insurance.
10:03 McCain congratulates Joe for wanting to buy the business he’s been working for, and says Obama’s going to come after him for it (brings up “spread the wealth” gaffe again), because now he qualifies as “rich” as far as Obama’s concerned. Says his plan will let people take the $5K and shop around for health care; bargain hunting is good for competition in a free market. Says Obama’s plan includes too much government. Obama: under my plan, if you have employer based care, you keep it; under McCain, you run the risk of losing it. (By the way, is it me, or did McCain just barely stop short of calling Obama “Senator Government” before correcting himself? Man, I hope so…) [Later: It wasn’t just me. Scroll down to UPDATE. — Ed.]
10:06 Schieffer brings up Roe v. Wade. McCain says he has never imposed a litmus test on nominees to the court. Says Roe was a bad decision on federalism grounds. Says nominees should be confirmed or rejected on merit alone. Brings up Gang of Fourteen episode (is that smart?). Said he voted for Breyer and Ginsburg because they were qualified judges, not because he agreed with them. Says Obama refused to join Gang and believes ideology should dictate confirmations. Says he would “consider anyone and their qualifications;” attitude toward Roe would demonstrate dedication to judicial restraint and federalism, and therefore reflect on those qualifications. Obama: most important thing about judges is their capacity for “fairness.” Also says no litmus test, but says Roe was right; says Roe “hangs in the balance,” which implies he’d keep that in mind. Goes into why he supports Roe, which isn’t an answer to the question. Says he wants judges with an idea of “what real world folks are going through.” Brings up Ledbetter case of sex discrimination, says he tried to get statute of limitations waived and McCain voted against it. McCain says it was a “trial lawyer’s dream.” Brings up Born Alive Act, which Obama voted against in Illinois. Goes into his long history of “present” votes on important moral issues like partial birth abortion. Says his votes run in direct contravention to mainstream America. Obama says he would never vote to withhold treatment from an infant. Says there was already a law on the books to that effect. Says he supports a ban on partial birth abortion, with an exception for woman’s health or life. Falls back on “come together” rhetoric on teen pregnancy, adoptions, single mothers, yadda yadda. McCain cautions over “eloquence” again. Says “health of the mother” could include just about anything. Cites his and Cindy’s adopted child.
10:16 Last question, education. Performance of our schools does not reflect spending on public schools. What do you intend to do about it? Obama: this has more to do with our nation’s future than anything, yadda yadda. Calls it a national security issue. Groan. Says both money and reform are necessary. Ticks off a list of things we should improve. Higher teacher pay. Groan. Army of new teachers. Groan. Help pay for college? Great, more spending…where’d that scalpel go, Senator? Can’t do it without parents, instill a thirst for knowledge, yadda yadda. McCain: Civil rights issue of the 21st century. No advantage to sending a low income child to a failing school. Plays up charter schools with merit pay, weeding out bad teachers. Vouchers for private schools, let parents send kids to school of their choice. “Throwing money at the problem” doesn’t work. “Troops to Teachers” putting people who have just come from the military into teaching jobs. Improve student loan programs. Wow…McCain actually came better prepared than Obama on this one…surprise of the evening, in my opinion.
10:20 Should federal government play a larger role in schools? Obama: Tradition of local school control is a good thing, but (of course) federal government should step up and help. Says No Child Left Behind left schools cash-strapped. Seconds McCain on charter schools and weeding out bad teachers. Disagrees on vouchers. Says McCain has no cred on college affordability. America’s youth are our future, yadda yadda. Says “somebody’s gotta pay for it;” apparently that somebody is the federal government, according to Obama. McCain says 9,000 or so parents participated in D.C. voucher program, with success, and Obama should know better. Says NCLB was a good start, while flawed; still insists throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer. Says school reform has been treated as “out of bounds” by Democrats in Congress. Obama: disagrees that vouchers have the proven success McCain says they do. McCain summarizes: “Not enough vouchers, therefore it’s not working and we shouldn’t do it. I got it.”
10:27 Final statements. McCain: America needs a new direction. I have a record of reform and standing up to my party and special interests. (Cites examples.) Must stop overspending. Boils it down to a matter of trust…whom do you trust to keep promises made tonight? Look at my record. Long line of McCains have served the country; give me the opportunity to serve. Obama: Policies of the last eight years (drink!) led to worst economic policies since Depression. Fundamental decency and generosity of American people shows me brighter days are ahead, must invest in American people. More programs (i.e. more spending). Not going to be easy or quick. Sacrifice, service, responsibility.
Debate’s over. OK, there was a little more life in this one. Not much but a little. Lots of attacking by McCain; Obama sounded like he’d just sit back and play rope-a-dope…we’ll see if he’s got the hard support for that strategy to work. Take a bow, Joe Wurzelbacher! I wanna be a plumber now.
On the economy, especially on taxes, I think McCain took Obama by surprise. Didn’t overwhelm, but did much better than before. His line about “I’m not President Bush” was something I’ve been waiting for for some time, but I really wish he’d call Obama on the 95% ridiculousness. The section on negative campaigning I thought was a waste of time. Ditto with the running mates. Energy independence definitely went to McCain; Obama spent his time fudging around what to do with oil. Health care goes to Obama; his plan doesn’t add up, but he had the neater package. McCain, as I would have expected, wins on free trade…Obama is an isolationist in sheep’s clothing. The detour into judges and abortion went to McCain; he was firm and on-message, while Obama retreated into weasel-words and reassured nobody. Education, which I’d have expected to go to Obama, was either a wash or barely goes to McCain; Obama was nothing but spend, spend, spend; McCain not only made a good case for charter schools, toughness on teacher performance, and school vouchers, but used them effectively against Obama. Unfortunately for McCain, he lost the closing-statement contest on rhetoric to the Smoothmeister.
Frank Luntz’s focus group of undecideds is slightly over 50/50 in favor of Obama as winner, but like me, they were all very positive on McCain’s “I’m not President Bush” line. I’m a little iffy on this group…Luntz says he screened the focus groups to bring in undecideds, but given how some of them are talking about Obama, either he wasn’t careful enough in weeding out the Obama fans or a few of them simply lied their way past him.
OK, now let’s see how closely the networks hew to this morning’s marching orders from Team Obama.
And in a pleasant surprise, WitSnapper is linked from C-SPAN! Woohoooo!
UPDATE: According to the other blogs, I wasn’t going deaf when I heard McCain call Obama “Senator Government,” though I’m sensing indecision as to whether it was a deliberate “slip of the tongue.” He did say “government” a few words later, so he may have simply got slightly ahead of himself in his head (I do that frequently), but if it was deliberate, it was brilliantly pulled off. You know, for that matter, even if it was accidental, it was still brilliantly pulled off. Obama’s new nickname for the rest of the election has just been carved in stone. As Miz Michelle remarks in her wrap-up:
The best line of the night may have been unplanned (or maybe not)? In jabbing Obama’s spend-spend-spend plans, McCain called him “Senator Government.”
It’s a fitting moniker for the Democrat candidate who spent the whole night talking about “investing” other people’s money. Perfect.
McCain ought to call him that from now until Nov. 4.