You know how you feel when you’re overtired at the end of a long day: A bit crabby, out-of-sorts, overwhelmed by a desperate need for sleep, snarling uncontrollably at people who make a perfectly ordinary, civil comment to you.
Well, after watching all three presidential debates, I came to a startling conclusion: When John McCain’s people negotiated the terms of the debates, they should have insisted on keeping them to a half-hour. In each of the three jousts, McCain did well for the first 20 to 30 minutes before lapsing into his grumpy old man routine, leaving the country wondering what is he so angry about.
As I sat watching last night, it dawned on me that maybe McCain’s normal bedtime is around 9.30: Perhaps that’s when he usually jammies up, has a glass of warm milk and crawls under the sheets. Maybe it’s being stuck on stage for another hour that turns him crabby and out-of-sorts. It’s sure how it appears through the television screen.
If McCain could re-boot the debates as he keeps trying to do with his campaign, my hunch is he would have insisted on either starting an hour or two earlier or limiting the exercise to a half-hour format.
“Our Last Hope Is Voter Suppression”
Things are decidedly downbeat this morning in Virginia where a contact inside the McCain campaign is giving me his post-mortem.
“John can’t win from losing,” is the Cliff’s Notes take on the debate from a source inside the McCain campaign. “In the first two debates he came across as someone who didn’t know where he was. Last night, instead of being stronger he seemed like Grandpa Simpson.”
What about internal polling?
“Base loved him, undecideds are drifting to Obama,” comes the sorrowful answer.
So what’s left for the campaign in the 20 or so days remaining?
“Voter suppression and wonky Dieboldt machines,” my contact shoots back, adding “It’s our last hope.” He stuns me into a long silence. Breaking the awkward pause, he admits, “I’m just kidding.”
It’s so funny I forgot to laugh.
In fact, the Republican Party may not have a campaign strategy but it does have an election strategy: Keep as many likely Obama voters as possible from casting a ballot. This means minorities in Cleveland and Toledo, and students in the campus towns of Columbus and Cincinnati. Yesterday, an Ohio state court acting on a Republican Party-sponsored motion directed the Democratic Secretary of State to verify – by Friday, mind you – all of the registrations of the several hundred thousand people who registered and voted on the same day during the state’s early voting. One of many problems with the decision is that the wife of one of the judges ruling in favor of the motion is a Republican candidate on the ballot.
I thought bar association ethics rules required judges – and lawyers – to recuse themselves from cases in which they have an interest. Oh, wait a moment: We’re talking about Ohio where the Republican Party perfected ignoring conflict of interest, scamming ethics and driving illegal voter suppression.
McCain’s utter disdain and palpable dislike of Barack Obama was written all over his face, and his snarling, openly churlish responses to Bob Schieffer’s probing questions – Schieffer was the best of the debate moderators, by far – told the country far more about what a McCain presidency would be like than anything substantive he said.
The country saw clearly that McCain is a nasty, vicious, pitcher of sour buttermilk three weeks past its “use by” date, who is barely able contain his temper and can’t quite grasp what is happening to him.
The lasting image of the night could be the split screen of Obama, maintaining his unflappable demeanor under withering attacks, while McCain slouched in his chair looking coiled, breathing deeply, eyelids flapping like mad, a grimace on his face he tried disguising as a smile, all in an unsuccessful but unmistakable show of impatience.
“We came into the debate with two-thirds of the American people thinking that John McCain is running a negative campaign, and Senator McCain spent 90 minutes trying to convince the other third,” Obama campaign chief David Plouffe declared afterwards
The CBS and CNN snap polls of undecided voters gave the night to Obama, and a group of undecided voters gathered by the Sacramento Bee to watch were asked by Sacramento State University government professor Kimberly Nalder asked “Which candidate has the Joe-mentum?” McCain’s strategy to wrest momentum from Obama by constantly referring to Joe The Plumber was roundly ridiculed by the focus group.
In Obama’s Chicago headquarters, equally happy internal polling results are rolling in within an hour of the end of the debate.
“We trounced him,” a trusted, long-time source inside the campaign tells me around midnight. “Undecideds and independents turned against McCain in droves.”
This is confirmed by a second Obama source, who notes “We didn’t lose any of the people who’d already decided to vote for Barack and we gained significantly among undecideds.” She pauses and I hear her clicking through data on her computer screen before she shouting, “Jesus! We picked up some previously committed McCain voters! That’s a good night!”
The question between now and November 4 is how many good nights can overcome the Republican’s aggressive voter suppression campaign and “wonky” electronic voting machines.
It sounds as if even the McCain campaign is being sold out by the same forces.
If you’re born in Milwaukee, you are born a Democrat. And so I gravitated naturally to liberal politics, first as journalist and then an activist. I’ve been writing since I was eight years old and, after working in newsrooms for far too long, I have devoted much of the past decade as an independent investigtative journalist. When not writing about politics or George Bush, I scribble out essays on the peculiarites of modern times.
Articles by Charley James: