HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — John McCain’s challenge at the final debate was to present his case for the presidency in a new light.
But after more than 90 minutes of intense exchanges with Barack Obama — sometimes compelling, often awkward — there was very little new light, and no obvious reason for McCain to be optimistic that he has turned his troubled campaign in a new direction.
To the contrary, what McCain offered at Hofstra University was simply a more intense, more glaring version of his campaign in familiar light — an edgy, even angry performance that in many ways seemed like a metaphor for his unfocused, wildly improvisational campaign.
The Arizona senator threw many punches and sometimes may have landed a few, as when he called Obama out for reneging on a clear promise to accept public financing and the spending limits that go with it.
But just as often, Obama smoothly sidestepped the punches, as when he gave what seemed like a plausible and nondefensive answer on how he came to know the ‘60s-era domestic terrorist Bill Ayers and pivoted to boast about the range of advice he seeks from establishment pillars, such as Warren Buffet on the economy.
More important, what was not evident in all the flailing of arms was a clear or logically consistent case about why McCain should be president and Obama should not be.
McCain in one moment blasted big spending and high taxes, and at the same time called for an unprecedented federal effort to boost home values by buying bad mortgages and renegotiating the terms.
Ayers was important, McCain insisted, not because his association revealed something about Obama’s ideology or patriotism, but simply because the Democrat had failed to be forthcoming.
And the mood McCain conveyed was irritable — with repeated sarcastic jibes at Obama — and sometimes a bit weird, flashing a brittle smile and bulging eyes as Obama was speaking. These were images certain to be aired again and again, from YouTube to "Saturday Night Live."
As the evening ended, it was hard to imagine McCain’s performance could have dislodged many current Obama supporters, or impressed many fence-sitters waiting for new arguments or for some new dimension of McCain’s leadership skills to be revealed.
Commentators such as Charles Krauthammer, who has written devastating critiques of Obama, said on Fox News that Obama won the encounter with a poised and mistake-free performance. Fox anchor Brit Hume said some of McCain’s mannerisms were “peculiar.”
Obama did not reveal much new either about his leadership profile. He showed the same traits that marked his first two debates — fluent sentences spoken in a steady and even subdued style. It showed that he is a veteran of 23 debates over this election cycle.
But as the candidate who was ahead in national polls and most swing states, Obama had less need to offer something new or dramatic.
The evening did put Obama’s own governing instincts on vivid display. Obama, for all his efforts to present himself as a post-ideological politician, is a believer in Big Government liberalism.
In a different climate, Obama might have left himself be exposed in this debate. By our count, he called for new spending for energy (several times), college, special needs programs, health care, teacher development, mortgage assistance, and tax breaks for virtually everyone, including those who don’t pay taxes and perhaps automakers. He came away sounding like a next-generation LBJ.
But the Big Government label simply lacks the resonance it once did. A big reason: Everyone in Washington is a Big Government liberal these days as Washington bails out businesses with bipartisan support.
McCain did his best to mine this theme, especially with his references to the ubiquitous "Joe the Plumber," who he said would suffer under Obama's efforts to "spread the wealth" throuh heavy taxation.
By the end of the evening, Joe might have worn out his welcome as symbol, with references to him overflowing like a backed-up drain. And his usefulness as a McCain surrogate might be quickly over, thanks to an interview after the debate with Katie Couric of CBS News in which Joe Wurzelbacher of Holland, Ohio, said that Obama's answers amounted to a "tap dance ... almost as good as Sammy Davis, Jr."
You can bet that in the coming days, pundits will say John McCain should have shown us the old John McCain. You know, the one who is a maverick, who loves the press and who seems so damn likable. As last night’s debate showed, that John McCain is long gone.
What we saw Wednesday night was the John McCain this campaign has produced. A man of passion — but one who struggles mightily to present himself as the most plausible candidate in these depressing economic times.