There’s an old adage about American presidential debates: nobody ever remembers the feed-line, only the response. Geraldine Ferraro is remembered for rounding on George Bush Sr in 1984 for patronising her, as is her 1988 successor Lloyd Bentsen – with an equally questionable excuse – for accusing Dan Quayle of comparing himself to President Kennedy. In the last of the three 2008 presidential debates it was the counter-blows that will probably be forgotten. Certainly, Barack Obama had and has effective voting data to counter the implication of McCain’s effective one-liner (‘I’m not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago’) while McCain was unable to recover from Obama’s equally well-rehearsed counter to the charge that he ‘pals around with terrorists’.
The final debate, held in Long Island around a semicircular desk, was a more engaging and dramatic affair than the traditional podium-based and town-hall meeting style debates that preceded it. Not that it broke the pattern of the series as a whole. Although the final debate saw more disagreement on substance (and more detail about policy), the most memorable section dealt with the campaign itself. As before, the candidates’ confidence, body language, expression and even forms of address continued to expose important distinctions between them. Obama’s refusal (by and large) to be prodded or goaded off course has played its part in increasing his poll lead.
The second McCain/Obama debate will probably be chiefly remembered for the extraordinary moment when, apparently forgetting his opponent’s name, McCain referred to Obama as ‘that one’. In the last debate, he managed to look at Obama from time to time, but appeared to forget the name of his wife (twice). He was happier sitting around a table than standing at a podium or stalking round a television studio, but still looked uneasy in reaction shots, while Obama’s habit of turning to him at the end of his answers served to expose McCain’s continuing unease with eye contact. In the body language battle, Obama remained (largely) coolly presidential, while McCain had no choice but to play the aggressive challenger. Clearly, many of his attacks on Obama’s spending proposals, past associations and positions on such issues as abortion and the environment were designed to ensure that his Republican base comes out on the day. But he found himself trapped inside the paradox of negative campaigning: unpopular with voters in principle, it is highly effective in practice, as Michael Dukakis discovered to his cost in 1988 when he tried to take the high ground against George Bush Sr.
The problem was demonstrated most clearly during the answers to the moderator Bob Schieffer’s third question, about leadership and the ethics of the campaign. Conscious of the dangers of negative attacks, McCain resisted pressure to take on the perceived anti-Americanism of the Obama family’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, or Obama’s alleged association with the former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers. In the build-up to the debate, Obama’s campaign had deliberately goaded McCain into bringing up the Ayers issue. When he did Obama produced what was doubtless one of the most highly-worked answers of the series, in which he pointed out that he and Ayers – now an education professor in Chicago – had merely sat on the same, admirably bipartisan school reform board (‘he served and I served’ not, heaven forbid, ‘we served’), and that he had ‘roundly condemned’ the ‘despicable acts’ which Ayers had committed when Obama was eight years old. Ungoaded, McCain challenged attacks on the tone of Sarah Palin’s campaign rallies made by the Georgia Congressman John Lewis (whose record in the civil rights movement obliged McCain to call him an ‘American hero’). Gently ignoring the question in his first answer, Obama responded, when McCain brought the subject up again, by pointing out that hecklers at Palin rallies had greeted his name by shouting ‘terrorist’ and ‘kill him’, without any apparent challenge. McCain’s blustery answer (he was ‘not going to stand for’ attacks on the patriotic Americans who attended his rallies) failed to remove his opponent from the high ground on which the initial challenge had placed him.
Nonetheless, McCain’s tactic of jabbing corrections into the middle of Obama’s answers effectively threw Obama off track on two occasions. McCain came out ahead on the last question, describing education, questionably but effectively, as ‘the civil rights issue of the 21st century’; and his jibe that Obama should have run against President Bush four years ago was probably the best single line of the series. Another notable feature of the third debate was the unlikely prominence given by McCain to a metanymic small businessman, an Ohio plumber called Joe Wurzelbacher who feared that Obama’s tax proposals would prevent him from realising the American dream. Wheeled out again as an example of the benefits and iniquities of the candidates’ rival health-care proposals, an eager McCain (and, latterly, a reluctant Obama) addressed considerable portions of the debate directly to ‘Joe the Plumber’. Despite the disorienting effect of his unexpected 90 minutes of fame, the debate did nothing to shake Joe’s commitment to the McCain/Palin ticket.
Up until the final debate, the 2008 series was – like all debate series back to 1992 – much more about not losing than winning. As in the first three debates, the round-table confrontation in New York saw points made on both sides. However, the immediate post-debate polling – which gave Obama victory by substantial margins – was a just response to the cumulative effects of the series as a whole. Despite Joe the Plumber, the consistency of Obama’s performance elevates him from a three-time non-loser to a series winner.