The ‘Joe the Plumber’ Debate

McCain and Obama Remind Us What a Presidential Debate Should Actually Look Like

It’s 3 a.m., and my roommate is quiet and asleep. But there’s a phone on my desk, and it’s ringing.

Thankfully, my cell phone is only reminding me to finish this story, but in my sleep deprived state, I can’t help but chuckle at how much the Presidential race has shifted in the past few months. When Hillary Clinton first ran the now infamous red phone ad, she was emphasizing how we live in a “dangerous world,” telling voters that she was better prepared than Barack Obama to tame any foreign threat.

Fast forward to Wednesday night’s debate at the Hofstra University between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, and it’s easy to wonder how the situation changed so dramatically. This last of three Presidential debates fittingly focused exclusively on domestic policy: health care, taxes, and of course, the economy.

For this debate, and at this time in our nation’s history, Americans are more concerned about the literal bread and butter crises of their everyday lives. Pocketbook issues and the financial crisis trump the equally important but more distant problems of Iran, North Korea, and as John McCain puts it, “countries that don’t like us very much.”

Moderator Bob Schieffer wasted no time by immediately asking the Senators to evaluate each other’s economic recovery plans, where both candidates agreed on the necessity of stabilizing falling home values. Beyond this brief agreement though, the debate served to illustrate the meaningful differences between McCain and Obama.

Things got heated quickly on taxes, where Obama’s 95 percent tax cut butted against McCain’s pro-business policies. While the rhetoric from both campaigns is familiar at this point, Mac proved once again how he earned the ‘maverick’ label by injecting Joe the Plumber into the debate.

For those who didn’t get his life story from the debate, Joe Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber) is an uncommitted voter from Ohio who hopes to buy the plumbing business he has worked for. His claim to fame came from talking heatedly with Obama at a rally after learning that Obama’s economic plan would raise taxes on small businesses like the one Joe wants to buy. In what could be called either a Freudian slip or a life preserver to the McCain campaign, Obama bluntly responded to Joe by telling him that the higher taxes would not be punishment for success, but instead a way to, “spread the wealth around.”

McCain seized this opportunity, and from that point on proved that when the Maverick is good in debates, he is very, very good. He was able to put Obama on the defensive from the start, and build some much needed momentum for the rest of the debate. Furthermore, McCain took one of Obama’s key attacks and flipped it on its head in his most memorable line of the night: “I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.” Obama never fully recovered, and Joe the Plumber gave McCain a big advantage.

Following a string of back and forth questions about the economy and whether either candidate really was capable of bucking their party’s leadership, Schieffer threw McCain and Obama a curve by asking them why neither had lived up to their promise of a clean campaign. Unfortunately, about the only meaningful result of this trip back into the mud was McCain’s ability to bring up Obama’s affiliation with the recently scandalized ACORN. This episode stands as the low point in an otherwise well moderated debate.

McCain continued to perturb the normally stoic Senator Obama in the second half of the debate, and Obama’s nervous chuckle during some of Senator McCain’s rebuttals looked decidedly un-Presidential. Additionally, McCain caught Obama using weasel words and adding dubious qualifiers to his statements, noting how Barack claimed that he supported off-shore drilling simply by the virtue of his willingness to, “look at it,” as a source of energy.

That’s not to say that McCain was always flawless, as Obama’s statements were as a rule more eloquent than McCain’s. Similarly, no matter how many times McCain has been nailed by pundits for looking uncomfortable around Obama, he continued to reveal his disdain for his adversary through body language and words.

When the issue of health care came up, Obama gained the edge as McCain focused too much time on explaining how his opponents’ plan would lead to a bigger and less efficient government, without focusing enough on the benefits of his own plan. However, the fact that the Illinois Democrat had to devote some of his time to addressing Joe the plumber alone demonstrates the brilliance of McCain’s debate strategy.

After each candidate had adequately convinced every senior citizen in the country that the other’s health care plan would hang them out to dry, Bob Schieffer directed them to the topics of Supreme Court appointees, Roe vs. Wade, and eventually abortion in general. McCain’s firm stance against judicial activism and his reasoning behind it held more water than Obama’s support of everything about judicial activism but the name, though whether voter’s will agree largely depend on how successful the candidates were in backing up their positions.

In that case, McCain’s success in bringing up another part of Obama’s record probably had conservatives pumping their fists with glee (at least that’s how this conservative reacted). Pointing to Obama’s vote of ‘present’ in an Illinois Senate vote that would have required medical care for any child born alive during an attempted abortion, McCain stressed how he and his wife had adopted a child. While Obama’s counter argument for judges who are concerned with the opinions of the day involved a dismissed lawsuit of a woman who sued because of pay discrimination, McCain was able to respond that the case in question had more to do with the statute of limitations than judicial fairness. Score another one for the Maverick.

The final question about education revealed nothing new, and both candidates had rather lackluster closing statements, with McCain poorly rehashing part of his excellent conclusion from the past debate and Obama taking a page out of Bob Dole’s playbook by asking for the viewer’s votes. Overall though, Obama tried to play the role of a nonplussed leader but came off looking all too vulnerable to tough questions, while McCain used the night to mount attacks on Obama while advancing his own views.

In the end though, I look at what both candidates did after the debate as a revealing measure of their personality. After shaking hands and meeting their wives, both Senators stood waving to the crowd, but while Obama looked stoic, McCain was enthusiastic, almost jumping to shake Bob Schieffer’s hand. McCain’s eagerness looked reassuring, no doubt stemming from an idea of, “I’ve been through tough times before, and I’m not about to let every little red phone crisis shake my belief in America’s might.”

With the media predicting doom and gloom from stock markets, terrorists, or ‘record breaking profits’ at oil companies, McCain’s level of experience and well grounded optimism for the future are exactly what American’s want to see in their next leader. Once you look past Obama’s eloquent words, as McCain did Wednesday night, you find a lack of substance to Obama’s campaign promises. John McCain wins this one because while Barack Obama showed America he knows how to campaign, McCain showed he knows how to lead.

Joe Maurer is a member of the Class of 2012.