It's a pitiable sight, the last stages of a presidential campaign that has already been declared dead. It's like watching the thrashings of a great eagle that can no longer take flight but grows still, fluttering now and then against unyielding fate but unable to come back to full life. In the final debate of this presidential campaign, John McCain did take the offensive in fits and starts, but he never seemed to gain enough traction to take off.
The Republican nominee came close to achieving ramp speed at the beginning of the debate when he had some help from Joe the Plumber, an exemplar of what Barack Obama's proposed taxes would mean out in the real world. Even if Joe sounded suspiciously like a Republican.
No statistical abstraction, Joe Wurzelbacher of Toledo, Ohio, said he hoped to buy a plumbing business some day. But if it grows, and he begins hiring other plumbers, and he starts making $200,000 a year which is where Senator Obama's higher tax on individuals clicks in would all the work and worry be worth it?
Joe called the higher tax bracket punishment for success, and resents it. It seems to be the principle of the thing he objects to, quite apart from the craziness of raising taxes on small business in this uncertain economy. (How's that for an ingenious way to create jobs?)
Barack Obama can usually get away with saying his higher taxes are going to be paid only by The Rich, or only the top 5 percent of earners (who already pay 60 percent of the federal income taxes collected in this country), or just Somebody Else ... but when he was confronted by Joe the Plumber out on the campaign trail, about all the senator could do was play that old redistributionist riff:
"It's not that I want to punish your success," he told Mr. Wurzelbacher. "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance at success, too. And I think that when we spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." At least if it's Joe the Plumber's wealth.
For just a moment, Barack Obama was on the spot in this final debate of the presidential election, but John McCain lacked the rhetorical skills to keep him there, and Barack Obama soon slipped away, as is his wont.
This coolest of customers was even able to slip past his votes for infanticide in the Illinois legislature. For an allegiance to abortion and its holiest of holies, Roe v. Wade, can lead its truest believers to oppose even legislation that would have protected babies who'd somehow been born despite the abortionist's best effort.
When his strange, curiously dispassionate votes back in the state legislature were first recounted in unsettling detail by the National Right to Life Committee, the senator accused that organization whose encyclopedic research sets the standard in this business of "lying," a charge that failed to hold up after the fact-checkers got through with it.
But none of this fazed the senator; nothing ever does. He had his unconvincing story and was sticking to it with the urbane casualness, even about matters of life and death, that has characterized his whole campaign, maybe his whole career. Whenever the mere facts conflict with his explanations, he simply rises above them, aura intact, and moves on.
The whole debate went like that, and not just this one but the first two. John McCain might have his facts in hand, whether about the success of the Surge or how Barack Obama's proposals would affect job creation, but he would always wind up muttering in his opponent's dust.
As each of Senator McCain's efforts to bring the fight to his opponent sputtered out, like the last sporadic moves of a great beached bird, Barack Obama stood coolly by, listening with detachment, before he sidestepped the gruesome sight and moved on, untouched.
These days, an air of inevitability settling in around him, Barack Obama moves on to the White House. At this point he seems to be gliding to election as smoothly as President Dewey in 1948. He's got a date to keep, maybe with destiny. As for the inner man Destiny will encounter there is an inner man there, isn't there? Barack Obama may prove as much a mystery to her as he still is to so much of the American electorate. Even after this endless campaign, there is a blankness about him. But what does it matter what he might actually do or not do as president? He's so cool.