John McCain's frustrations are not hard to understand. Last night, he had an ugly hand to play, and he played it well, especially compared to the last debate. But after a tough stretch in the campaign during which he has been wrong-footed on the economy and side-swiped by the facile quality of his vice presidential pick, McCain came out of the debate facing a hard, but increasingly possible, truth: that no matter what he does, Barack Obama looks like he's going to be the next president of the United States.
For the world, this is a stunning and awesome—in the real sense of the word—development. For McCain it means the death of a dream and a mountain of frustration. His campaign simply seems unable to slow, stymie or stop the juggernaut that the Obama campaign has become.
McCain did every thing he was supposed to do. He addressed the economy, by proposing an expensive homeowners' bailout plan that would match the Wall Street bailout recently adopted into law. He attacked Obama's lack of experience. He even tried to link Obama to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, saying that he opposed a Bush-Cheney energy plan, but Obama had supported it.
"By the way, my friends… it was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate, loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney," McCain began. "You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one."
The "that one" reference was jarring for any number of reasons. But why go down that road? You know all of that.
The debate essentially established the framework for the next three and a half weeks left in the campaign—change vs. too much change. The Obama campaign will continue to paint McCain as the embodiment of the status quo. The task before McCain, and maybe his only option left at this point, is to try to persuade voters that Obama is way too risky an option, and that a Democratic victory would represent a lurch into radicalism.
"This is the most liberal big-spending record in the United States Senate. I have fought against excessive spending…" McCain said.
Trouble is, with the economy in tatters and a "big-spending" government bailout touted as the only hope for the country's stability, well-being and future survival, it may be far too late for "liberal big-spending" attack lines to have any effect at all.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor at The Root.