Joe the Plumber
Joe the Plumber

Debate 3: John, Barack, and Joe the plumber

The economy is in shambles. The stock market gyrations give you whiplash. The US is embroiled in two wars, seemingly without end. The government has lost all credibility, apparently clueless to stop the death spiral they have started. And all John McCain and Sarah Palin can talk about are guys named Joe. Palin extols Joe Six-Pack as her constituency, and McCain is now obsessed with Joe the Plumber.

Last night's debate reminded me of those nights when a mosquito gets into your bedroom. It keeps buzzing around your ear; you keep batting it away, but it comes back again and again, doing little real harm, but it disturbs your sleep and annoys you greatly nonetheless. McCain kept up a barrage of annoying little attacks, trotting out all his best campaign attack lines whether they had anything to do with the question or not. He was obviously trying to get under the skin of "that one," but Barack refused to be drawn in. For the most part he smiled benignly at the truculent McCain who obviously wanted to stand up and stamp his feet.

joe sixpack
Joe Sixpack
air quotes
McCain uses air quotes to disparage Obama

The McCain on display last night was the talking John McCain doll. Pull his string and hear him say another line from his stump speech. Consider the following non-sequitor while McCain was making a second attempt to level the Bill Ayers charges:

MCCAIN: And it's not the fact -- it's not the fact that Senator Obama chooses to associate with a guy who in 2001 said that he wished he had have bombed more, and he had a long association with him. It's the fact that all the -- all of the details need to be known about Senator Obama's relationship with them and with ACORN and the American people will make a judgment.

And my campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America. And that's what my campaign is about and I'm not going to raise taxes the way Senator Obama wants to raise taxes in a tough economy. And that's really what this campaign is going to be about.

The first paragraph is simply incoherent, and the second paragraph is belied by the first. It's enoughto give a person whiplash.

McCain tried to use Obama's command of language as a weapon against him.

MCCAIN: Well, you know, I admire so much Senator Obama's eloquence. And you really have to pay attention to words. He said, we will look at offshore drilling. Did you get that? Look at. We can offshore drill now. We've got to do it now. We will reduce the cost of a barrel of oil because we show the world that we have a supply of our own. It's doable. The technology is there and we have to drill now.

Hello, John! The cost of a barrel of oil is already dropping rapidly, not because of offshore drilling but because demand is dropping as a consequence of the tanking economy. McCain always seems to be one step behind reality. Besides that, it's a sad state of affairs when competence and accomplishment are derided.

When the topic shifted to Supreme Court justices, McCain piously insisted he would never impose a "litmus test" on any nominee for the bench. Bob Schieffer pinned him down:

SCHIEFFER: But even if it was someone -- even someone who had a history of being for abortion rights, you would consider them?

MCCAIN: I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications. But I certainly would not impose any litmus test.

Did you get that? He would only judge nominees on their qualifications and would not impose a litmus test, but if a nominee supported Roe v Wade they wouldn't be qualified.

Then there was the surreal segment in which McCain painted himself as a victim. He and Sarah have been the ones stirring up hatred and anger on the campaign trail. It's very dangerous when crowd members are incited to call out "Kill him," "Terrorist," and the like. Congressman John Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement of the 60s with the scars to prove it, cautioned against doing that. McCain was "hurt."

MCCAIN: Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful.

And, Senator Obama, you didn't repudiate those remarks. Every time there's been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them. I hope that Senator Obama will repudiate those remarks that were made by Congressman John Lewis, very unfair and totally inappropriate.

McCain, in fact, nearly broke out in crocodile tears. His nose also grew exponentially longer as he told that whopper.

Then McCain trotted out the old canard that if only Obama had agreed to do a tour of town hall meetings, all of this negativity could have been avoided. This amounts to "Obama made me do it" but McCain has never explained how the two things — town hall meetings and negative campaign ads — are related. He wants us to see some cause-effect relationship that just isn't there. Fortunately, Obama called him on it:

OBAMA: The notion, though, that because we're not doing town hall meetings that justifies some of the ads that have been going up, not just from your own campaign directly, John, but 527s and other organizations that make some pretty tough accusations, well, I don't mind being attacked for the next three weeks.

What the American people can't afford, though, is four more years of failed economic policies. And what they deserve over the next four weeks is that we talk about what's most pressing to them: the economic crisis.

Senator McCain's own campaign said publicly last week that, if we keep on talking about the economic crisis, we lose, so we need to change the subject.

Occasionally, McCain's attempt to recycle his talking points backfired, as when he once again insisted that Obama would "fine" Joe the Plumber if he didn't provide healthcare for the employees of the business he might someday try to buy.

I'd still like to know what that fine is going to be

MCCAIN: Now, my old buddy, Joe, Joe the plumber, is out there.... if you're out there, my friend, and you've got employees, and you've got kids, if you don't get -- adopt the health care plan that Senator Obama mandates, he's going to fine you.

MCCAIN: Now, Senator Obama, I'd like -- still like to know what that fine is going to be, and I don't think that Joe right now wants to pay a fine when he is seeing such difficult times in America's economy.


OBAMA: I just described what my plan is. And I'm happy to talk to you, Joe, too, if you're out there. Here's your fine -- zero. You won't pay a fine, because...


OBAMA: Zero, because as I said in our last debate and I'll repeat, John, I exempt small businesses from the requirement for large businesses that can afford to provide health care to their employees, but are not doing it.

This was typical McCain: interrupting, making things up, not listening — in short, being rude, arrogant, and condescending. The expression on McCain's face when Obama drove the point home — Here's your fine -- zero — was precious. There is a fine compendium of McCain's eye-rolls and grimaces on YouTube.

McCain cannot resist playing the role of the grumpy old uncle who's had just about enough of that young whippersnapper.

MCCAIN: So Senator Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, opposes the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.... 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.


Astonishingly, McCain tried to defend his rallies as attended by absolute paragons of virtue:

MCCAIN:Let me just say categorically I'm proud of the people that come to our rallies.... I'm not going to stand for people saying that the people that come to my rallies are anything but the most dedicated, patriotic men and women that are in this nation and they're great citizens.

McCain also tried to invoke the two chosen bogeymen of the week, Bill Ayers and Acorn. Oh, my!

MCCAIN: Yes, real quick. Mr. Ayers, I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist....

We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.

89% believe the US is on the "wrong track"

For someone who doesn't "care about an old washed up terrorist" McCain and Palin surely do talk about him a lot. And as for ACORN, there's a difference between voter fraud and voter registration fraud. Voter fraud is when Mickey Mouse shows up and tries to cast a vote in Ohio. Voter registration fraud is when someone fills in Mickey Mouse's name on a registration form. The difference escapes McCain however, and if anybody is "destroying the fabric of democracy" I'd suggest the usual suspects — George W Bush and Dick Cheney — rather than a voter-registration organization that McCain himself lauded when he was the keynote speaker at an ACORN meeting.

What's amazing to me is that the McCain campaign just doesn't get it. Americans profoundly believe the country is "on the wrong track" — only 7% think the US is on the "right track." They want a change.

And right now their attention is riveted on the economy — Will they have a job? Will they have anything left in their retirement funds? Fear concentrates the mind. Meanwhile, McCain, by his own admission, is focusing on "a washed up terrorist." It just ain't a workin'.

Nick Anderson
Nick Anderson
The more McCain attacks, the worse he does

At one time, there might have been a number of independent voters who could have favored McCain, but as McCain's attacks on Obama's character escalate and as he lurches from one position to another, his ratings go down. He objects to being called "erratic" but erratic he has been. If we are going to get out of this mess we need a calm hand on the tiller of the ship of state. We don't need someone who improvises while wearing ideological blinders.

Last updated on Apr 13, 2018



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