Politicians are often advised to personalize their message, to tell stories about real people that illustrate the impact of a policy choice. But the final debate between John McCain and Barack Obama proved that you can go berserk with this personalization stuff.
Like the guy who figures that if one fish-oil pill is good for your heart, he might as well down a whole bottle of 'em in one sitting, McCain dedicated most of the night to "Joe the Plumber," an Ohio man who had questioned Obama about his tax ideas earlier this week. Obama felt compelled to join in the fun, and after a while it started to feel that the entire debate was being held for the personal gratification and edification of Joe the Plumber. The same way Al Franken once jokingly asked us to enter the 1980s by thinking less about what we could do for ourselves and more about what we could do for him, the two major-party candidates for president seemed determined to win the love of one burly man from Toledo. Things got so strange, I half-expected McCain to gleefully wave a toilet seat around during his closing statement, or lower his slacks just enough to reveal some solidarity plumber's butt.
While we heard plenty of tired catch phrases -- "scalpels, not hatchets" on the budget (Obama) vs. "scalpels AND hatchets" on the budget (McCain): Are we shaping domestic policy or recounting the Lizzie Borden trial? -- moderator Bob Schieffer forced them into some fresh exchanges. For the first time in a debate, they had to discuss their standards for Supreme Court nominees, their feelings about abortion, their perspectives on school vouchers, and the overall negativity of the campaign.
Social issues have carried the day for Republicans in the past, but Obama turned the always divisive issue of abortion into an opportunity to look like a statesman. He showed respect and understanding for opponents of choice, never appeared defensive, and suggested common ground (even if his suggestion -- working to reduce unwanted pregnancies -- is a familiar one, it indicated that he just might be what another man once called "a uniter, not a divider").
Six months ago, in a debate with Hillary Clinton, when Obama had to deal with his connection to former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers, he seemed irritated and flustered. This time, you could sense that he welcomed the Ayers attack from McCain because it enabled him to, once and for all, innoculate himself on the issue. By presenting Ayers as a respected college professor who sat on a board with Republicans, a man whose terrorist past Obama openly condemned, he made their relationship understandable in a way he had previously failed to do.
Best line from McCain: "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run again President Bush, you should have run four years ago." (This zinger would have been even more effective coming from McCain in August.)
Best line from Obama: "The fact that this `Ayers, etc.` has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me."