Bob Schieffer opened last night's debate with a wistful plea. "By now we've heard all the talking points," he said. "So let's try to tell the people something they don't know." Good luck with that.
The problem John McCain faced going into the campaign's final debate is that Americans fully understood the contours of this election before it ever began. Before the talking points were distributed, before Sarah Palin tossed her first wink, and before McCain even came up with a health plan to defend, both Joe the Plumber and Joe Six Pack knew all they had to: We need something new. As long ago as March, four out of five Americans said the country was headed in the wrong direction, an all-time low.
So for all the bells and whistles of this campaign—the historic moment of Barack Obama, the dramatic fall of Hillary Clinton, the spectacle of Sarah Palin—it's turned out to be a terribly conventional affair. It's a disciplined, well-funded campaign against an unfocused, cash-strapped one. It's a fresh, hopeful face against an old Washington hand. And, yeah, it's the economy, stupid. McCain's sputtering, petulant effort to pick a fight with Obama last night was just his latest effort to obscure these stubborn realities.
It's also just the latest display of how bad McCain's been at creating the distractions he so desperately needs. He lashed around from taxes to character so wildly, poor Joe must have gotten dizzy trying to follow along. The only clear point to emerge for McCain was that he thinks Obama is "eloquent." Sorry Bob, the people already knew that, too.
McCain has missed every note he's reached for in this campaign. He stood stubbornly by a war nobody likes and predicted we'll be involved for generations. He picked a vice president whose only qualification was her cultural divisiveness, only to watch much of the country, even Republicans, unite in astonishment at her ineptness. He shrugged off the economic crisis everyday people have felt for more than a year, then clumsily butted into the bailout negotiations long enough to derail them. He stoked white America's fear of black and brown America, only to find himself staring down bald racism that seemed to shock him as much as it did every decent person watching.
And last night, when his task was to convince voters Obama is too dangerous, McCain may have ultimately cemented the case that he, rather than Obama, is truly the risky choice. He held his own far better than in the first two debates. "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago," he told Obama, in his best line of the night.
But his frustrated anger stood in stark contrast to Obama's storied calm—a temperament aligned with what most people want from a leader in any time, let alone one in which the country faces such grave, incomprehensible challenges. Obama may have appeared more wonkish than in the first two debates. But he looked neither scary nor inexperienced; he came off more presidential than ever. As for McCain, conservative columnist and PBS pundit David Brooks put it best: "Is this someone you want in your living room for the next four years?"
Ultimately, however, Obama stands poised to beat McCain for the same reasons he bested Clinton. In an election that is so dramatically centered on the country's desire to break with the past, he has faced two contenders who are deeply defined by their political histories.
McCain's maverick branding aside, he's been a known Beltway Republican for decades. And the country's current sentiment on Republicans is best summed up in a quote that Politico's Ben Smith noted yesterday. The GOP consultant showed a focus group attack ads that deliver on McCain's pre-debate pledge to "whip his you-know-what." The response? "[Obama's] gonna be a bad president," one Bush '00 and Dole '96 supporter said. "But I won't ever vote for another goddamn Republican. I want the government to take over all of Wall Street and bankers and the car companies and Wal-Mart and run this country like we used to when Reagan was president."
Try telling that guy something he doesn't know about this race. No line of attack hurled at Obama this year, either by Clinton during the primaries or by McCain now, has stood a chance against such a clear, pointed desire for something new. Obama got that early on, and stayed on his message of change. He understood that people didn't value Clinton or McCain's experience as much as they despised the environment in which both gained it. He understood that no matter how many names his opponents call him elitist, nonfighter and terrorist pal that the slurs shrink in comparison to the ones most Americans now have for anyone they consider part of yesterday's politics.
It's telling that McCain's latest gambit mirrors the one Clinton played at the primary's close—that Obama is arrogant and presumptuous about his rise to power. "Senator Obama," McCain has been saying all week, "is measuring the drapes and planning with Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid to raise taxes, increase spending…" blah, blah, blah. McCain may have scored a few points last night, but the fact is, most Americans have long been imagining those new drapes, too.
Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.