The Kitchen Sink Debate

Originally posted Oct. 16 at 12:15 a.m.

(Charles Dharapak / AP)

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.--That loud clanging you heard coming from Hofstra University tonight? It was the sound of a kitchen sink soaring from stage left, where Republican nominee Sen. John McCain was positioned, and landing stage right. (It even came equipped with a plumber.) Depending on where you sit and who you support, the unwieldy washbasin either knocked Sen. Barack Obama off his perch or shattered in pieces on the floor. The only question--the question that could decide this year's election--is how the dwindling bloc of undecided voters interpreted the commotion.

Based on the available evidence, I suspect they weren't convinced.

Trailing a candidate who could to afford to maintain the status quo--that's what a 7.3 percent lead in the national polls and 190 vote advantage in estimates of the Electoral College will do for you--McCain arrived at Hofstra with a far more difficult mission: catching up. This was, after all, the last time 70 million Americans would tune in before Election Day. The chatterati agreed that McCain needed a--cliche alert--"game-changer," but pre-debate speculation centered on "which McCain" would attempt to change the game: the gentleman who's spent the past few days telling audiences that he relishes his "underdog" status, pledges to "fight for [his country]" and refuses to impugn Obama personally, or the scrapper who's still airing negative ads 100 percent of the time and promising to "whip [Obama's] you-know-what."

The answer was immediately apparent to anyone with a pulse. Over the course of 90 minutes--and I apologize if my count is not complete; my fingers can only type so fast--McCain accused Obama of being a) a craven wealth-spreader (at least eight times), b) an abject tax-raiser, especially on folks unfortunate enough to make $42,000 a year, c) a lily-livered coward who's never once stood up to Harry Reid and/or Nancy Pelosi, d) a town-hall avoider, e) a public-financing flip-flopper, f) the most avid negative advertiser in American history, g) a befriender of "washed-up terrorist(s)," h) an enabler of "one of the greatest frauds in voter history" (which just so happens to be "destroying the fabric of American democracy"),  i) an "eloquent" dissembler, j) a Herbert Hoover clone, k) a supporter of infanticide and, finally, l) a guy who wants to do all kinds of unspeakable things to someone named Joe the Plumber, up to and including raising his taxes, redistributing his money and fining him for choosing the wrong kind of health care. He even rechristened Obama "Senator Government." (No word yet on whether Obama plans to spit in Joe's beer when he's looking in the other direction.) After all that, McCain's claim that his "campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America" seemed like a punchline.

Despite what Obama's defenders will say, some of McCain's slings and arrows were on target. The Illinois senator did weasel out of public financing. He did quash the town hall proposal after saying he would "meet [McCain] anytime, anywhere." His record of defying his party's orthodoxy is nowhere near as long as McCain's. And he does plan to raise taxes on small business owners who make more than $250,000 a year--which may or may not include Joe the Plumber.

Other attacks, however, were clearly inaccurate. Obama did not launch his career in William Ayers's living room, and objective observers say the two men "do not appear to have been close." ACORN may be irritating, but it's hardly "destroying the fabric of American democracy." (My take on the group is here.)  And even FOX News agrees that Obama never actually voted to raise taxes on families making $42,000. What's more, Obama crisply, coherently deflected the barbs tipped with a bit of "truthiness," including quote-unquote infanticide ("already a law on the books"), partial-birth abortion ("completely supportive of ban on late term abortions... as long as there's an exception for the mother's life") and the size of his health care "fine" ("zero; I exempt small business from the requirement"). Obama may have been on the receiving end of the kitchen sink tonight. But he never seemed shaken. Instead, he simply used McCain's flurry of attacks as an opportunity to decry "politics as usual" and repeatedly portray himself as the only candidate focused on the "the major problems facing America." McCain was too busy swinging to seem presidential.

That said, McCain did what he set out to do: attempt to "disqualify" Obama however possible.  The Democrat currently averages 50 percent of the vote, with 12 of the last 17 national polls showing him at or above that mark. Which means that McCain could capture every remaining undecided voter and still lose the election (were it held today). To come out on top, the Republican needed--needs--to convince people who are already supporting Obama to jump ship. Hence the kitchen-sink approach--a "disqualification" for everyone.

The question, though, is whether it will work. I suspect not. Here, a little history lesson is in order. In the first debate--the debate held in Oxford, Mississippi on Sept. 26--McCain effectively kept Obama on the defensive and, in my opinion, drove his message more effectively. At the time, I said he won. But that night, respondents in the CNN poll picked Obama 51 percent to 38 percent; CBS's pollees--undecideds--gave him a 39-25 edge. In Oxford, McCain may have been the better debater on points, but the voters recoiled from what they called his "condescending" persona--his refusal to say Obama's name, his reluctance to look his rival in the eye. The past few weeks--during which McCain and Sarah Palin have relentlessly questioned Obama's character--have unfolded in much the same way: with McCain's net favorable number plummeting (to 7.8 percent) and Obama's ticking steadily upward (to 21.5). For the record, both candidates enjoyed identical 17-point net-positive ratings before the match-up in Mississippi. McCain's attacks have hurt McCain more than they've hurt Obama.

That's why it's unclear that McCain's performance tonight--which, if anything, was even edgier than his debut, with more huffing, more puffing, more smirking and more eye-rolling--will rescue his bid. My hunch is that his criticisms were so diffuse and so scattered that the viewers won't focus on the substance of any one attack--they'll just focus on the fact that McCain spent much of his time attacking (and continue to punish him for it). The early signs, at least, aren't favorable for the Republican. The CBS poll shows that 55 percent of uncommitted viewers preferred Obama; only 22 percent preferred McCain. CNN has a 58-31 split. More than half of FOX's undecided focus group broke for the Democrat. Those are easily the most decisive results of the season.

Lest I sound too negative, the debate wasn't all attacks, all the time. McCain had some strong moments. He rightfully scolded Obama for indiscriminately linking him to Bush. "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush," he said. "If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." He was forceful, passionate and clear when speaking about education and abortion (although surrounding "health of the mother" with air-quotes was a mistake). And I kind of liked the Joe the Plumber concept--even if the senator spoiled it by saying "Joe the Plumber" 21 times and unleashing lines like this one: "You were going to put him in a higher tax bracket which was going to increase his taxes, which was going to cause him not to be able to employ people, which Joe was trying to realize the American dream." Apparently, McCain feeds his talking points through Google Translator.

But while Hofstra may have been the most compelling showdown to date, the headline tonight is still "McCain Attacks"--and deservedly, even purposefully, so. Die-hard Republicans will applaud their nominee for "taking off the gloves" and swinging again and again at a rival they consider unfit to serve. But die-hard Republicans are already voting Republican. The fact is, the people McCain still needs to win over--that is, undecideds and soft Obama supporters--have yet to indicate that they can be swayed by attacks (let alone a dozen attacks at once). With only 20 days to go until the election, we'll know soon enough whether they've simply been waiting to hear one they liked--or whether they've heard enough already.