It was approximately 9:54 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, on the 15th of October, when John McCain set fire to his hair and took a hammer to his fading candidacy, smashing it to smithereens.
Until that moment in the final presidential debate, he had actually performed fairly well. He had played offense against Barack Obama without being offensive; in other words, he had basically hewed to the issues.
For instance, he had seized on Obama's recent Ohio conversation with the gentleman known officially as Joe Wurzelbacher - known forevermore as Joe the Plumber - and he got some mileage out of that, because Joe the Plumber has aspirations to be a small businessman making more than $250,000, and, under Obama's tax plan, Joe the Plumber could face an increase in his marginal tax rate. McCain needled Obama about all that - which, as political rhetoric goes, is fair enough, given the traditional Republican belief that nobody's taxes should ever go up. And as the debate topics shifted, McCain remained assertive, saying that Obama the so-called reformer had actually supported a whole range of earmark pork-barrel projects, including "$3 million for an overhead projector" in a Chicago planetarium. Granted, the average debate-watcher was probably sick of hearing McCain bang away about earmarks, and, granted, that "overhead projector" McCain keeps mentioning is actually a sophisticated device that projects 4,500 stars on the dome of a renowned city planetarium that attracts 400,000 visitors a year, the first time the device has been upgraded in 40 years...but at least McCain was sticking to issues, and keeping his emotions on low boil.
But then, as the hour neared 10 p.m., his simmering cup runneth over. He took the bait. And he probably lost this election.
It happened shortly after moderator Bob Schieffer dangled Bill Ayers in front of McCain. Schieffer told him, "Your running mate said (that Obama) palled around with terrorists," and invited McCain to say it to Obama's face. For a couple minutes there, it appeared that McCain would let the matter rest, that he would not waste the viewer's time playing guilt-by-association. That would have been the smart move. McCain has been hustling the Obama-Ayers "link" for weeks now - Ayres, an extremist antiwar bomber back in the late '60s, served with Obama on several Chicago education projects during the '90s - and the more he tries to make it stick, the lower he sinks in the polls. The more that he and Sarah Palin try to paint Obama as a terrorist fellow traveler, the more Obama's favorability rating goes up. And if that wasn't enough to deter McCain from his doomed tactic, perhaps this item should have been persuasive: The latest CBS News-New York Times survey reports that 56 percent of Americans dismiss the Ayres link as inconsequential. Want to guess what percent of Americans view the Ayers link as a serious issue detrimental to Obama? Nine.
Unsolicited futile memo to McCain: People. Do. Not. Care.
And yet, in the end, McCain went for it anyway. It was basically a suicidal move, since most voters have already dismissed McCain as excessively negative, but let us remember that McCain also has to serve his core constituency. His right-wing supporters have been demanding that McCain wield Ayers as a weapon, and, as we know by now (the Palin pick being the best example), McCain dances to the conservatives' tune. He'll never win this election with just his base; on other hand, if he doesn't sufficiently kowtow, his base won't show up to vote, either.
So he took the plunge: "I don't care about an old, washed-up terrorist. But...we need to know the full extent of that relationship." Whereupon Obama, who knew this moment was coming, proceeded to take McCain apart:
"Bill Ayers is a professor of education in Chicago. Forty years ago, when I was eight years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago, he and I served on a board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg. Other members on that board were the presidents of the University of Illinois; the president of Northwestern University, who happens to be a Republican; the president of the Chicago Tribune, a Republican-leaning newspaper. Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House."
That was part one of the response. Note the fact that Ayres served on that board with a number of Republicans, none of whom seemed to be discomfited by Ayers' crimes nearly 30 years earlier. Obama also could have mentioned that Annenberg's widow is a current donor to the McCain campaign, and Obama could have mentioned that another McCain donor - Arnold Weber, a former officer at the Commercial Club of Chicago - also had no problem serving on a board with Ayers, but perhaps Obama wanted to get to the rest of his response. It came a few moments later:
"(T)he allegation that Senator McCain has continually made is that somehow my associations are troubling. Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. If I'm interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden, or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or General Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO. Those are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House. And I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me."
Obama accomplished a lot in part two. He essentially said that, while McCain wants to dredge up 1969, he prefers to talk about the people with whom he plans to associate in 2009. He even addressed the "inexperience" factor by naming some of the experienced people who will advise him. He hit the bipartisan theme by citing Dick Lugar. He hit the commander-in-chief theme by citing Jim Jones. And, in his final remark, he put the onus back on McCain.
That should have been the end of it. But no. McCain still wouldn't let it go. He had looked twitchy and jumpy from the opening minutes - and it was glaringly obvious when contrasted with Obama's cool - but his agitation seemed worse as he dug his hole ever deeper:
"Well, again, while you were on the board of the Woods Foundation, you and Mr. Ayers together, you sent $230,000 to ACORN. So - and you launched your political campaign in Mr. Ayers' living room...The facts are the facts, and records are records."
It went on like that a bit longer. But the thing is, the average swing voter doesn't know or care what the Woods Foundation is (nor did McCain tell them), and doesn't know or care about ACORN. The average swing voter knows and cares about the bills piling up on the kitchen table. And as for that line about how Obama "launched" his '95 state Senate campaign in Ayers' living room....McCain was lying again (a common occurrence lately, as I have repeatedly detailed). The actual fact is, Obama launched his state Senate run on Sept. 19, 1995...at the Hyde Park Ramada Inn. Ayers did host a coffee get-together for Obama, but it was only one of many held in Obama's neighborhood.
Most interestingly, here's how McCain finished regaling us with Ayers: "The American people will make a judgment. And my campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America. And that's what my campaign is about." That's quite a segue. He goes from dark insinuations to "a brighter future" in the blink of an eye. The dark insinuations were for the conservative base. The optimism line was for the independent swing voters. He somehow thinks that he can attract both with this kind of message whiplash.
But the early verdict is in already. CNN/Opinion Research Corporation reports this morning that, among debate-watching independents, 57 percent scored Obama the winner, and only 31 percent chose McCain. Over at CBS News, the pollster reported that, among uncommitted debate-watchers, 53 percent sided with Obama, and only 22 percent favored McCain. The GOP candidate's last major opportunity to reverse the dynamics of this race has now come and gone.
Marshall McLuhan, the famed sociologist, wrote that TV is a "cool" medium, one that is inhospitable to "hot" personalities. It won't do any good, but some Republican with clout would be well advised to inform the Bush alumni in charge of McCain's campaign that, at least this year, there's no way Americans will elect a guy who acts like he needs anger management.