today in black history

June 23, 2024

Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was born on this date in 1948 in Pin Point, Georgia.

Verbal Punches but no Contact

POSTED: October 16, 2008, 12:00 pm

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In the third and final debate of the presidential campaign it was quickly evident that Republican candidate Senator John McCain was prepared to pull out all stops to try to stop the surge of his rival, Democratic Senator Barack Obama. The Arizona Republican set a feisty tone as he aggressively sought to dominate the debate, often making very animated gestures and even sighing heavily when Senator Obama was making a point or responding to a question. Through it all, Obama reacted as he has throughout the three debates; calm, cool and reserved in his reaction to his opponent’s attacks.

With the Dow Industrial’s dramatic dive the story of the day, the debate took place as the economy dominated all other news. It was a tailor made situation for Senator Obama as recent polls have indicated that he has picked up considerable support from segments of the electorate concerned about the nation’s economic outlook. Those same polls indicated that the electorate has been turned off by the negative tone of the McCain campaign; a point even some Republicans have been stressing over the last several days.

For Senator McCain the night consisted of repeated attempts to paint Senator Obama as a tax and spend liberal, and someone the American public should have little confidence in his ability to lead. McCain clearly tried to paint himself as the more accomplished of the two while still claiming to be a Capitol Hill reformer. He also tried desperately to connect to white, working class voters, referring to “Joe Plumber” as a metaphor for the American worker when speaking about an Ohio voter Senator Obama had met on the campaign trail. McCain went so far as to invoke the term “class warfare” when referring to Senator Obama’s tax cut plan.

For his part, Senator Obama patiently responded to moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News when asked a question and was measured in the way in which he responded directly to points raised by his rival. The Illinois Democrat could be seen smiling when listening to points raised by McCain on which they obviously disagreed. Unlike previous debates the two men were seated next to each other on stage, making it virtually impossible to avoid looking directly at each other.

One of the sharpest exchanges came when Schieffer brought up negative advertising and the tone of the election in general. Over the last two days both camps indicated it was prepared to brawl over the question of negative campaigning. Senator Obama had suggested that McCain had yet to “say it to my face” when making accusations about the Democrat’s supposed relationship with 1960’s radical, and current college professor William Ayers. McCain had indicated he would confront Obama about the relationship and the day leading up to the debate indicated he would aggressively take on his rival on that issue.

Senator Obama, clearly exasperated by the issue, made clear the details of his acquaintance with Mr. Ayers. “Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg. Other members on that board were the presidents of the University of Illinois, the president of Northwestern University, who happens to be a Republican, the president of The Chicago Tribune, a Republican- leaning newspaper.”

Senator Obama continued, “Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that's Mr. Ayers.”

In responding to Schieffer’s question about the tone of the campaign, McCain feigned hurt feelings when referring to a recent statement by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) comparing McCain’s tactics to that of segregationist Governor George Wallace. In talking about specific incidents McCain said, “One of them happened just the other day, when a man I admire and respect -- I've written about him -- Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful.” The Republican attempted to bait Obama into repudiating the Georgia congressman and civil rights advocate, but Obama quickly deflected the accusation.

Instead Obama put Lewis’ comments into context by raising the issue of remarks supporters of McCain have been heard making at his rallies in recent days. The Democrat countered, “I mean, look, if we want to talk about Congressman Lewis, who is an American hero, he, unprompted by my campaign, without my campaign's awareness, made a statement that he was troubled with what he was hearing at some of the rallies that your running mate was holding, in which all the Republican reports indicated were shouting, when my name came up, things like ‘terrorist’ and ‘kill him,’ and that your running mate didn't mention, didn't stop, didn't say ‘Hold on a second, that's kind of out of line’."

What was remarkable about the exchange was that Schieffer did not see fit to question McCain about the violent rhetoric that has been coming out of his campaign rallies. The moderator, in fact, had an opening to do so when McCain, in reference to the crowds at his rallies, said, “I'm not going to stand for people saying that the people that come to my rallies are anything but the most dedicated, patriotic men and women that are in this nation and they're great citizens.” It was an absolute defense of some of the most vile rhetoric to come out of a presidential campaign in recent memory and the debate moderator failed to hold Senator McCain accountable.

Likewise, McCain attempted to tie Senator Obama to the grassroots community organizing group ACORN that has recently come under questioning over alleged fraudulent voter registration efforts. McCain argued, “We need to know the full extent of Sen. Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy. The same front outfit organization that your campaign gave $832,000 for ‘lighting and site selection.’ So all of these things need to be examined, of course.”

Senator Obama flatly rejected McCain’s claim, responding, “Now, with respect to ACORN, ACORN is a community organization. Apparently what they've done is they were paying people to go out and register folks, and apparently some of the people who were out there didn't really register people, they just filled out a bunch of names. It had nothing to do with us. We were not involved.”

While the two men differed sharply on taxes, health care, energy policy and education, it was their exchange on the matter of accusations raised by the McCain camp that put the campaign into context. The power of video to capture a moment and tell a story was evident in last night’s debate. Throughout the evening Senator Obama appeared the elder statesmen, taking great pains to parse his words and calmly making his points in a very methodical fashion. The Democratic nominee skillfully returned to his central theme – the need for change – without falling prey to the natural inclination to come back at Senator McCain in the manner in which he was attacked. For McCain, as post-debate public reaction proved, the debate further drove unfavorable opinion of him up that much more. While his hard core base may have relished his feistiness, the larger public took it as further proof that he is out of touch on a day when most Americans were reeling from the latest economic setback.

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