Editorial: Schieffer, not Joe the Plumber, star of this debate

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Move over, Joe Sixpack, it's Joe the Plumber's turn now.

In the last of the 2008 presidential debates, Republican John McCain invoked Joe the Plumber repeatedly, and to some effect with regard to how differently he and Barack Obama view tax and economic policy. No doubt McCain scored points with his base in painting Obama as a big-government, income-redistributing liberal who will prevent Joe the Plumber from realizing his American Dream.

The problem for McCain is that he must pull independents in order to win. Did the Republican succeed in doing that Wednesday night? Of the three debates this was McCain's best effort. Obama was not bad, but he's been better.

Perhaps McCain's strongest moment was in trying to distance himself from the lame-duck president whose approval rating reached a new low this past week, particularly on economic policy. "I am not President Bush," McCain said to Obama. "If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." The problem for McCain, of course, is that in the minds of many Americans, he is running against the record of his same-party president every bit as much as he is the Democrat Obama.

Where McCain did not do so well was in trying to indict Obama for his past association with "washed-up terrorist" Bill Ayers, who has admitted to involvement in the bombings of government buildings nearly 40 years ago, when he was a member of the radical group Weather Underground and Obama was a child. The problem for McCain and for supporters who want to go there with him is that if we're going to play the guilt-by-association game, it cuts both ways.

Fine, let's talk about Ayers and their serving on some boards together in Chicago, but then let's also talk about McCain's friendship with Charles Keating, the personification of the savings and loan crisis that ended up costing taxpayers in excess of $120 billion (with Keating responsible for $3.4 billion of that himself). Fine, let's talk about Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright and his "God damn America," but then let's also talk about McCain's connections to the Rev. John Hagee and the latter's preaching that Adolf Hitler was doing God's will through the Holocaust and that the Catholic Church is "the Great Whore." In fact both candidates have their baggage here.

Meanwhile, McCain's feelings got hurt because Georgia Congressman John Lewis condemned his campaign for "sowing the seeds of hatred and division" in a manner reminiscent of the civil rights era. But McCain had no condemnation for his own running mate accusing Obama of "palling around with terrorists" at a rally where there was a shout of "Kill him!" Let us be emphatic about this: No campaign that really puts the nation and not politics first will throw any more fuel on those fires. This is treading in mighty dangerous territory.

McCain's seeming reluctance to stray from this point of debate, on a day when the Dow dropped more than 700 points, likely did not help him with independents. That said, neither did Obama do himself any favors with his weak answer on where he would cut spending in a federal government that might very well run a $1 trillion deficit next year.

Ultimately, these two candidates really do see the role of government quite differently, with dramatic gaps between them on health care policy, on education, on abortion (Obama is solidly pro-choice, McCain solidly pro-life). Make no mistake: The future direction of the Supreme Court likely depends very much upon which of these men gets elected.

Perhaps the biggest difference of all between the two, however, is the demeanor they'd bring to the job. The debates really had value in exposing that, as well as their penchant for falling into certain rhetorical ruts - if McCain has his "my friends," then Obama has his "Well, look ..."

Obama has proven himself in multiple settings to be a difficult guy to ruffle. He is calm and seemingly comfortable almost to the point of detachment, sometimes - "professorial," some have called it. McCain is the opposite - passionate, fiery, almost angry. So which of those temperaments does America most need right now?

All in all the real winner Wednesday was not McCain, not Obama, and not Joe the Plumber - who's getting some scrutiny now he likely is not thrilled about -but CBS News' Bob Schieffer, who did a masterful job moderating the best and most informative debate to date. The next two weeks and four days should be fascinating.

Peoria Journal Star