Final debate: game changer?

Last evening at the debate party at Trocadero, I heard one comment over and over again after the conclusion of the event: Who was that man on stage with Barack Obama and where has he been the last few weeks? Earlier, I had written that John McCain had to assert himself, attack Obama’s positions, and let it fly.  Last night he delivered, in a big way.

Unlike the first debate, McCain started strong and finally moved away (somewhat) from the idea that he could out-populist Obama.  He made clear that the financial collapse started with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but even more clearly and consistently attacked Obama’s economic policies as something just north of ridiculous.  In one example, he scored points on this by pointing out that Obama’s policies resembled that of another president – Herbert Hoover:

So I don’t — I don’t think there’s any doubt that Senator Obama wants to restrict trade and he wants to raise taxes. And the last president of the United States that tried that was Herbert Hoover, and we went from a deep recession into a depression.

That came as part of a discussion on free trade, in which Obama laughably described himself as a free-trader.  McCain noted his opposition to the Colombian free-trade agreement, and pointed out his inexperience and lack of judgment.  Obama, McCain said, couldn’t understand the issues involve because he never bothered to see them for himself, and pointed out that Colombia already sends its goods to the US for free.  The agreement lowers trade barriers of American goods:

But let me give you another example of a free trade agreement that Senator Obama opposes. Right now, because of previous agreements, some made by President Clinton, the goods and products that we send to Colombia, which is our largest agricultural importer of our products, is — there’s a billion dollars that we — our businesses have paid so far in order to get our goods in there.

Because of previous agreements, their goods and products come into our country for free. So Senator Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, opposes the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The same country that’s helping us try to stop the flow of drugs into our country that’s killing young Americans. …

Free trade with Colombia is something that’s a no-brainer. But maybe you ought to travel down there and visit them and maybe you could understand it a lot better.

This will be remembered as the Joe Debate, I think.  Joe the Plumber got more attention last night than either of the running mates.  Obama had a lengthy conversation with Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber from Toledo, in an Ohio rope-line that he probably regrets.  Obama told him that he wanted to raise Joe’s taxes in order to “spread the wealth”, a phrase that McCain repeated seven times during the debate.  Obama tried to claim that he told Joe he should have had a tax break earlier, but that didn’t address Obama’s redistributionism now — not for Joe, and certainly not for McCain, who marveled aloud how anyone could propose tax hikes and massive new spending in the beginning of a recession.

Obama did manage to briefly take back momentum during the health-care discussion.  He clearly felt more comfortable and sounded more informed on that topic, although he didn’t acknowledge that he essentially lied in his campaign ads about McCain’s plan.  McCain did better at the end of the topic, accidentally calling Obama “Senator Government” in a serendipitous rhetorical stumble.

Immediately afterwards, moderator Bob Schieffer did what none of the others did before him: he asked about abortion and judicial nominations.  McCain said he would not apply a litmus test and that his standards would be whether they could apply the law and had the competence to serve.  Obama said he would look for “fairness”, which is to say Obama wants people to legislate from the bench.  That’s when McCain hit Obama with the Illinois born-alive legislation, and Obama flat-out lied about his record, as he did with William Ayers.  I’ll address that in a separate post.

McCain kept Obama on the defensive, hit him with abortion, Fannie/Freddie (more of a glancing blow, really), Ayers, and on inexperience and his tax-and-spend philosophy all night long.  He clearly won, but was it enough?  Did he get the game-changer he needed?  I’d say that McCain missed a few opportunities last night, but overall did as well as anyone could have hoped.  With the race already starting to tighten, McCain gave independents and centrists some reasons to reconsider their choice.  We’ll know in a few days, but I think this gives McCain a boost heading into the final stretch.

Update: Jazz Shaw, who ran our chat room last night, thinks McCain won and did everything he could to pull out a victory.