The final debate at Hofstra University last night was the best debate of the three presidential debates in this historic election. The candidates had spirited exchanges on a number of hot topics, not just the economy. William Ayers, Joe the Plumber from Ohio (a real person, unlike Joe Six-Pack), Lilly Ledbetter were all brought into the debate, as well as the candidate's negative campaigns and the highly emotional, controversial topic of abortion.
John McCain came out strong on the economy, which has proved to be his Achilles heel in these dark days of economic woe. He dominated the discussion on Joe the Plumber, who complained that Obama's tax plan would put his dream of owning his own business out of reach. His indignation on how Obama would dare raise taxes in times of financial turmoil seemed righteous and justified, and he criticized Obama's explanation of "spreading the wealth around." He put forth some good fiscal conservative arguments and even managed to put some distance between himself and the current president, saying, "I'm not George W. Bush," adding that if his opponent had wanted to run against him he should have run four years ago.
Still McCain unraveled his solid start in the debate on the topic of negative campaigning and did more damage discussing William Ayers. Barack Obama did not flinch when McCain expressed his obvious hurt and outrage that Rep. John Lewis would compare him with George Wallace, Alabama's segregationist governor in the 1960s. Obama described the McCain and Palin rallies last week at which discussions of Ayers by the Republican candidates led to shouts of, "Terrorist!" and "Kill him!" Obama spoke of these scenes, in which McCain and Palin did not beg for calm initially, with coolness and detachment--some would call his performance flat--while McCain blustered and demanded that Obama repudiate Lewis for his remarks. Obama did not rise to the bait, by the way, although he did state that Lewis had spoken on his own without endorsement from the campaign. Obama had the courage to call McCain on the atmosphere of some Republican rallies, while McCain behaved a bit like a middle school queen bee who's been accused of bullying other girls with vicious gossip. You could almost hear the they're-picking-on-me tone in his voice.
Things got worse for McCain when the subject of William Ayers came up. Obama patiently explained that William Ayers, now a professor of education in Chicago, was part of a domestic terrorist group called Weather Underground back in the sixties, when Barack was eight years old, and that he, Obama, had publically denounced Ayers's actions from those days. Obama spoke about how he and Ayers had served together on a board of the Woods Fund of Chicago and named other board members. Yet somehow, that wasn't enough for McCain, who suggested that Obama was withholding information on his connection to Ayers and that Obama began his political career in Ayers's living room. McCain had the final word on Ayers, attempting to plant doubt in the minds of viewers, while Obama spoke of focusing on the issues that matter most to Americans.
Obama took the high road again, when asked if the thought that Sarah Palin was qualified to be president if the need should arise. He adroitly side-stepped this question, as skilled politicians do, and if he was suppressing an uncharitable desire to blast Palin for her lack of experience it didn't show. McCain, on the other hand, still struggled to hide his anger and comtempt for Obama. Those who watched CNN's broadcast of the debate had the benefit of watching the split screen that showed the candidates reactions to their opponent's answers. McCain gave a stronger performance, having managed to find his stride in his presentation style, but his reaction shots did not help his cause. Obama just smiled and shook his head whenever McCain made a statement that he didn't agree with.
The post debate analysts seem to agree that this final debate was not a game changer, though McCain did a better job than at the two previous debates. The post debate polls seemed to bear this out. Presidential debates give candidates the opportunity to answer honestly the tough questions posed by the moderators and sometimes the voters. Candidates, however, are rarely candid while running a campaign, and spend much of their time answering around the tough questions and repeating large chunks of narrative from their stump speeches. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard Obama and Biden mention the failed policies of the past four years, well, it wouldn't help my nest egg much but I might be able to take my family out to dinner. Still the debates give the opportunity for viewers and voter to see the candidates in action. Perhaps it doesn't do for us to choose our leaders based on which one avoids the question most eloquently, but at least we can make the most our experience watching Obama and McCain create their spin on the fly when we vote on November 4.