By Gilbert Garcia
If you throw out John McCain's surprise mortgage-buyout plan, last night's presidential debate was the exact same debate we saw two weeks ago, albeit with candidates pacing the stage and staring into the grills of their Nashville questioners.
I'll say this: McCain's grimacing snark-attack routine may not be pretty, but it sure spices up an otherwise hum-drum talking-points parade. Has there ever been a presidential candidate who detested his opponent as much as McCain hates Barack Obama? I mean, Dukakis and Daddy Bush were practically beer buddies by comparison. Some say it was rude of McCain to avoid looking at Obama in their first debate, but I think it was a hothead's version of courtesy: McCain knew if he looked at Obama for more than a few seconds, he'd boil over with Hanoi-Hilton-flashback rage, feel compelled to lunge at Obama, and wind up stabbing him repeatedly in the neck with his pen. Obama should be thankful that McCain averted his eyes so often.
Last night, McCain wasted no more than 10 seconds before landing the first stealth jab. "Senator Obama, it's good to be with you at a Town Hall meeting." (Translation: "At long last I got you here, after you wussed out on the series of Town Halls I suggested we do this summer.")
McCain scored early by arguing that he took an early public stand on subprime lending abuses at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while Obama stood on the sidelines, and he effectively described himself as someone who'd done more than talk about bipartisanship.
As the debate wore on, however, Obama seemed to hit his stride and McCain started to look deflated. His odd attempts at humor -- telling moderator Tom Brokaw he wouldn't be a candidate for treasury secretary, or calling Obama "that one," were perfectly in keeping with the man's chronic weakness for tin-eared levity.
When McCain infamously sang "Bomb Iran," no one in his right mind thought it was a reflection of the Arizona senator's political philosophy. And when he mockingly called Chelsea Clinton "ugly," it didn't necessarily mean that the guy gets off on saying cruel things about kids. But both comments, as well as his missteps last night, suggest a weird lack of taste, a Nixonian inability to suppress his uglier impulses. They also make him look out of touch, like Milton Berle wondering why he's bombing with a college crowd.
When a candidate telegraphs their big line from one debate to the next, they can expect their opponent to be ready the next time, and, sure enough, Obama's most memorable moment came when McCain once again said that Obama "doesn't understand" the complexities of foreign policy. Obama responded by saying it was true that he didn't understand how the United States -- with the full support of McCain -- could invade a country [Iraq] that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and drain so many of its resources there.
One final thought: Whoever convinced McCain that making fun of esoteric earmarks is the way to get Obama's goat -- or swing the campaign in his favor -- should be flogged with one of those $4-million licorice whips somebody surely snuck into a Pentagon appropriations bill. McCain twice ridiculed Obama for backing an earmark that funded an overhead projector for a Chicago planetarium. Sorry Mac, but with mortgages in shambles, retirement plans going up in smoke, and American forces consumed with two wars, overhead projectors at planetariums are a bit low on our collective outrage list.