[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
After the third presidential debate was finished, the pundits immediately swarmed to the moment that John McCain told Barack Obama, "I'm not President Bush." Many said it was the best line of the night. But, sadly for McCain, he was pleading to change his history, not stating a fact. And as he lost yet another debate (I'll discuss the post-debate polls later) mainly because of his anger and tone, I couldn't help thinking that what made McCain so bitter was his knowledge that he was, in fact, President Bush, at least in his policies and voting record. And that the American people know it.
Stating fiction as fact has been standard operating procedure for McCain during this campaign. So McCain's lies about the dirty campaign he has run (to say he has defended Obama is both laughable and offensive), or his mischaracterization of the ACORN and Ayers issues, were just par for the course.
But when McCain said, "I'm not President Bush," I couldn't help but think that he was wrestling with the inescapable fact that his Faustian bargain -- moving to the right and backing Bush for most of the last eight years so he could win the GOP nomination for the presidency -- was now exacting its toll, making him unpalatable to too many voters in the general election.
McCain can't change history now. It's too late. The numbers are there, mocking his claim of separation from Bush. In 2007, McCain voted with Bush 95 percent of the time, and since Bush took office, McCain voted with him 89 percent of the time (according to a Congressional Quarterly voting study). McCain has been even more loyal to his fellow Republicans in the Senate, voting with them 98 percent of the time in 2007 (43 of 44 times).
When McCain said "I'm not President Bush," it was like he was realizing that he had miscalculated, that siding with Bush for eight years might have gotten him in the race, but it also left him unable to win it. Now, in the last three weeks of the campaign, he wants to make the argument that he is the person to change the policies of the failed Bush administration. But with McCain's history, these assertions of change ring false. And deep down, he must know it. That's why he seemed so anxious and like he was begging the American people to believe that he was a reformer.
In the first two debates, the pundits directly afterwards gave mixed judgments on who had won, but when the people weighed in, they gave the decision to Obama. Why? Mostly because of McCain's demeanor and tone. He was angry and mean in the first debate, and then he wandered the stage like an agitated grandfather looking for the TV remote in the second one. And McCain's anger cost him again last night.
Obama certainly wasn't going to do anything to actively win this debate. He acted like the quarterback of a football team up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. There were going to be no passes into the end zone. Hell, there were going to be few passes, period. Obama did the equivalent of handing off to his running back again and again. That is, he had no interest in affirmatively scoring points. Rather, he wanted to avoid any costly, game-changing mistakes, sticking to the safest plays. He parried McCain's charges, but he hardly ever punched back.
Considering that Obama's strategy of appearing cool, calm and presidential worked brilliantly in the first two debates, it seems silly to criticize him for being so laid back in the third one. I have to admit, though, I would like to have seen him fight back at least a little. It would have been nice if he had responded to McCain's Ayers charges by pointing out McCain's far more direct associations, including: i) his service on the board of the ultra-conservative U.S. Council for World Freedom, which was denounced by the Anti-Defamation League for its ties to anti-Semitic and racists organization and included a well-known anti-Semite as a fellow board member; ii) saying he was proud of convicted Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy and his values; and his hiring of someone who lobbied for Saddam Hussein to run his transition team. I was hoping Obama would explain how absurd the whole ACORN accusations are in light of the myriad problems with Republican-perpetuated voter fraud.
And, most of all, I would have loved for Obama to cite McCain's voting record with Bush to combat McCain's active fleeing from his record supporting the president (rather than just blandly stating that McCain's policies on key issues were the same as Bush's).
But, as I wrote after the vice-presidential debate, I want people better than me to serve as president, and clearly the Obama campaign knew better. By staying positive, keeping the focus on the economy, and remaining, again, calm, cool and presidential, Obama was able to win over voters. A CBS poll released minutes after the debate showed that the debate was a rout win for Obama, with 53 percent of the uncommitted voters giving him the victory, and only 22 percent thinking McCain was the winner (24 percent had it as a draw). CNN's focus group panel had it as a 15-10 victory for Obama, the network's snap poll of independents was 58 percent to 31 percent in favor of the Democrat, and even Fox's panel gave the advantage to Obama.
So if it was McCain's anger that tipped yet another debate to Obama, it begs the question, Why is McCain so angry? Maybe he's uncomfortable with the race-baiting and smears he agreed to undertake in this campaign, and maybe it's because he wishes he was winning in the polls. Maybe he was jealous of Obama's flawlessly-run campaign (compared to his own chaotic organization), or the adulation Obama has enjoyed, with people flooding his events and sending money to him in unprecedented amounts.
But, in the end, I think nothing made McCain madder than the realization that his support of Bush for eight years will ultimately cost him his chance to win the general election. McCain might have been angry at Obama, but, really, at least to some extent, he has to be angry at himself.
"I'm not President Bush." Arguably, there was some truth to that statement in 2000. But after eight years of supporting a disastrous administration, and after adopting a Rovian campaign approach (like the one that smeared him in 2000), in 2008, Senator McCain is, for all intents and purposes, President Bush. And McCain knows it. No wonder he's so angry.