WHAT ARE THESE GUYS ON?

At times, this felt like a debate between a stoner and an alcoholic. Like in the first debate, it was frustrating to see Obama let McCain largely drive the debate and keep Obama on the defensive. But more so than in the first debate, I think if Obama seemed somewhat too subdued or even sedate, McCain came off as cranky, irritable, and nasty to the point of seeming unpresidential. McCain did himself no favors by cutting Obama off to bring up Bill Ayers an extra time, or with the endless sarcastic asides. And I think you look small when you whine on and on about how a civil rights hero was too mean in criticizing the nastiness of your campaign.

As a super-decided voter, it was aggravating to see McCain attack on the first Gulf War without Obama firing back about the current one, and more so to see Obama sounding defensive, reassuring tones about his tax plan without hammering McCain on why now of all times he would want to outdo George Bush in sending more money to the richest among us. That said, it’s not that Barack Obama doesn’t know how to go on the attack. It’s just that he’s winning, and his strategy in this debate – like the prior two but even more so – was to show himself a steady hand steering the ship of state. It’s hard to find someone not currently receiving checks from the McCain campaign to argue the Obama strategy isn’t working.

GOOD NEWS FOR JOHN McCAIN

After watching tonight’s debate, I have all kinds of good news for my friend John McCain (no, not “that one” – the other one): First, the Treasury Secretary just got the authority you want to give him to renegotiate mortgages – it was included in a bill signed last week you may have heard about – though that was after you un-suspended your campaign.

Second, if you’re all about your collaboration with Ted Kennedy and Joe Lieberman, the bills we used to call McCain-Kennedy and McCain-Lieberman are still out there waiting to be passed, and I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt those bills if you went back to supporting them again (though judging by the bailout bill, who knows).

Third, if you’re really against cutting taxes for rich people, there’s a man running for president right now who wants to cut taxes for the middle class instead – and it looks like he’s going to win!

Can’t say anything tonight changed that. Neither of these guys is a particularly good debater, and despite the hype, neither man took very good advantage of the town hall format tonight. But Obama was crisper and sharper tonight than either of them had been in the last debate, and he came off more comfortable and compelling and denied McCain another opportunity to change the race.

CINDY SHEEHAN: NOT SO PROGRESSIVE

More surprising than Cindy Sheehan’s return from her ostensible break from activism is her willingness to embrace conservative cant against the income tax:

The Federal Reserve, permanent federal (and unconstitutional) income taxes, Japanese Concentration Camps and, not one, but two atom bombs dropped on the innocent citizens of Japan were brought to us via the Democrats.

The 16th amendment empowers the majority to legislate against subjugation and plutocracy. It institutes a critical tool to confront on the badges of slavery abjured in the 13th amendment and realize the equal protection promised in the 14th.

Cindy Sheehan’s inane legal argument and her outrageous ethical argument against the income tax are disappointing. What’s more discouraging is skimming through the comments and realizing that taking on Nancy Pelosi arouses more outrage from DailyKos commenters than taking on the income tax.

WHERE ARE THE CATHOLIC WORKER POLS?

As Matt Yglesias observes, the relative absence of economically liberal social conservative politicians isn’t based on any lack of voters with that set of views. Michael Lind has an interesting take on it in Up From Conservatism. I still don’t know where he got the idea that the number of Americans “who sincerely believe both that abortions should be outlawed and that there should be further massive tax cuts for the rich – is quite small” (maybe he’ll explain it over at TPMCafe). But setting aside Lind’s questionable demographic premises, I think there’s some truth to his argument that the scarcity of politicians who are socially conservative and economically liberal is related to the scarcity of members of the American elite, however defined, who are what Europeans would call “Catholic workers,” libertarians would call “authoritarians,” and Lind would call “national liberals.” Self-identified libertarians, on the other hand, are much better represented amongst the elite than amongst the American public.

Quick take on tonight’s debate:

An underwhelming affair altogether. For a domestic policy debate, there were a fair number of non-domestic or non-policy questions. Kerry made the case for better homeland security well but didn’t go after Bush too strongly on creating a gigantic “tax gap” through tax cuts for the rich instead of paying for security for the rest of us. Reviving Bush’s quote about his lack of concern about bin Laden was a good move, and Bush’s description of the verbatim quote as an “exaggeration” was so obviously false even Fox News chose to air the original tape Kerry was quoting.

It was striking how eager Bush is to redirect all questions about the economy to the education issue, however dubious his record there. Funny how as a Republican he can get away with touting the spending increase as huge without drawing fire from the right and then turn around and charge those who push for more spending as tax-and-spend liberals. Kerry had a good line is saying the point wasn’t spending but rather results. But he seemed uncertain whether to tear into Bush on education, go back to the original question, or charge him with changing the topic – so he did a little bit of each. The politics are tricky, insofar as Bush is right that education’s key to improving living standards and growing the economy, and Kerry and most Americans agree. So making the case against Bush has to include his broken promises on education. But education doesn’t determine the health of the economy alone – taxes, trade, and the minimum wage are all crucial issues on which we deserve a real debate. Because as “compassionate” as re-training may sound, it offers more potential at the beginning of your career than towards the end. And because educated professionals are losing their jobs. And because we will never have an economy without a service sector or an industrial sector, and those jobs need to be dignified, living wage work. A minimum wage that’s half the poverty line if you’re supporting a kid is shameful. Also shameful is a government’s breach of faith with that parent and that child when it comes to funding education. By the way: Where was the right to organize in that debate? Why did unions only come up in terms of Kerry refusing to make promises to them?

On social issues, Bush was much more “wishy-washy” than Kerry, and more ambiguous than he should have gotten away with. Kerry’s failure to pin the Republican Platform’s call for a constitutional ban on abortion on Bush was a huge missed opportunity. His answer on abortion was better this time than the last debate though. On gay rights, Kerry’s saddled with his own bad policy of opposition to equal marraige rights, but at least managed to come down against the idea that gay folks just chose it. As for what they learned from their women, well, if the question had in fact been, as C-SPAN displayed it at first, “What have you learned about the women in your life?” it might have been more interesting.

Live-blogging the debate:

0:01 “A few” things is all you want to change about the PATRIOT ACT? Gonna be a long night…

0:03 Bush doesn’t see how you can lead this country if you change your mind…I think a lot of Americans are coming to realize you can’t lead the country so well if you never change your mind…

0:05 Touting that 75% of Al Qaeda leadership captured figure was probably more effective before Condi admitted we don’t know how many Al Qaeda leaders there are. That must be some amazing math…

0:06 “I wasn’t happy when we found out there wasn’t weapons there.” I understand, electorally, why that would be the case, but on some moral level, shouldn’t that be a relief?

0:09 No, he didn’t say “we must pass a global test before we use force” – he said we must pass one after we use force. Not much to tout from that first debate for you, is there?

0:10 Kerry appealing to what voters see about Iraq on TV is much more effective, somehow, than Bush appealing to what he sees about Iraq on TV…

0:13 Bush saying he’s more optimistic than Kerry about Iraq: Effective rhetoric. Bush saying Kerry’s copying his plan: Not so effective rhetoric.

0:15 “I’ve made some decisions that have caused people not to understand the great values of our country.” What? Whose fault would that be? I mean, is that just because the great values of our country are really hard to understand?

0:17 True, people love America who don’t like America’s decisions. That’s why so many of them are hoping Kerry wins. But doesn’t acknowledging the difference between criticism and America-hating remove one of your justifications for ignoring the criticism?

0:18 Calling Bush on broken promises from 2000: Key. Keep at it. And combining that with the firing dissenters angle is a key move too.

0:19 “The military’s job is to win the war. The President’s job is to win the peace.” Amen. Stick it to him for claiming criticizing the policy demoralizes the troops.

0:21 “…Iraq, where there wasn’t a threat,” is probably a poor turn of phrase after repeating that you agreed there was a threat.

0:22 Nuclear proliferation in Russia – hammer on this one. And commititng to halt any kind of development of any kind of weapon during a Presidential campaign is, to Kerry’s credit, a more courageous move than some Democratic Presidential nominees have made.

0:23 So now being a partner to the world, according to Bush, means renouncing nuclear aspirations. Someone should tell that to, I dunno, maybe President Bush…

0:26 “We need to be lighter and quicker and more facile.” More facile? Well, Bush is doing all he can for that goal…

0:27 OK, Kerry, we get that you’ve got a lot of military support…

0:28 Reagan’s foreign policy? Come on.

0:28 George Bush sure does love Poland. Which is heartwarming, especially now that they’ve said they’re backing out.

0:29 Anne is really excited to be at this debate. And not to have been attacked by terrorists.

0:30 “What was it, 1993 or so?” Way to make the Democratic Party’s job harder.

0:31 Slam him on saying tax cuts for the rich are more important than security for everyone. Clobber him. Please. Yes. Keep going.

0:32 “We’re doing everything we can to defend the homeland.” Really?

0:32 “If Iraq were to fail it would be a haven for terrorists.” As supposed to now, when it’s a, well, a…

0:34 “…the tax cut for the middle class.” First-class chutzpah. Did you just say you’re only concerned about working Americans being targeted by terrorists?

0:36 If Bush is for generic drugs, does that mean he’ll be reforming his AIDS policy?

0:37 “The President just didn’t level with you right here again.” Yes. “…into the pockets of the drug companies, right out of your pockets.” Yes.

0:38 Somehow, one President who managed to erode Medicare isn’t an impressive comparison to one Senator who didn’t completely positively transform the Medicare system.

0:41 Is there really polling out there that says that the only Doctors women are concerned about are OB/GYNs? Cause these two sure make it sound like it.

0:42 Did you just call him Senator Kennedy? Much like confusing Saddam and Osama – is this a screw-up or a subliminal message? Or maybe my reception just isn’t so good.

0:43 If “defensive medicine” means being extra careful to stay within regulations, maybe there are worse things Doctors could do.

0:44 Compassionate conservatives: Neither compassionate nor conservative. Disucss.

0:45 “We have a deficit.” How in touch of you. But wait – it’s all Bill Clinton and Osama 0bin Laden’s fault.

0:46 Bush citing today’s economic report? I come from the school of thought that calls that chutzpah (also the one that says if you want to increase demand by giving people money, it has to be the folks who are low-income enough to change consumption habits based on the extra money).

0:48 Kerry channels Robert Reich’s argument that real patriotism requires sacrifice. Or rather, he dances around it. So close…

0:50 Kerry calls Bush on the broken promise of $5 million jobs. And Enron. Nice.

0:51 Kerry’s long stare at the camera to promise never to raise taxes on folks making $199,000 a year, even if necessary to get healthcare for those making a hell of a lot less, is anything but comforting to me. And, I suspect, to a bunch of the low-income folks I registered this summer to vote.

0:54 Has Bush read the jobs report he’s citing?

0:55 Funny thing is, actually he did, by statistical fluke, get named the most liberal Senator because he missed so many votes.

0:56 Bush is actually citing the “Clear Skies Act” as if it helped, you know, clear skies. And now the “Healthy Forests Bill”! He should be slammed for this in, say, 30 seconds.

0:58 Instead, Kerry’s touting how many Republican/Clintonian things he voted for. Oy. Now he’s slamming him though. Somewhat.

0:59 “The halls of Europe”? Wonder what those look like.

1:01 “How can the US be competitive in manufacturing and maintain our standard of living?” “A reviewed, muscular, transnational labor movement.” Sorry – just fantasizing.

1:04 If anyone doubted that Bush’s plan is for the US to compete with third world dictatorships for deregulation and exploitation of labor, well, why did you ever doubt that?

1:05 I’d say “That’s news to me” is one of those expressions Bush should be careful about using, joke or not – it’s a little close to home.

1:06 I really, really wish that we had a Democratic candidate who could do more to comfort the man who’s worried about his rights being watered down than the incumbent is doing right now.

1:09 Well, this is a somewhat better answer on the PATRIOT ACT than we got from Kerry at the beginning. And good call on not letting terrorists re-write the constitution. But when you mention Dick Durbin, my main thought is, “Shouldn’t he (or, say, Barack Obama) be running for President?”

1:11 “Parapeligic” shouldn’t be such a hard word for Kerry to say. But framing the research as a sign of respect for life is a good, George-Lakoff-approved move.

1:13 “Science is important, but so is ethics.” Since when is that the choice?

1:16 If by “allowing personal opinion to enter into constitutional process,” you mean allowing the constitution to enter into the constitutional process, then yes?

1:17 Dred Scott? Newdow is our generation’s Dred Scott? Screw you. And sorry to break it to you, Mr. President, but the mid-nineteenth century constitution wasn’t exactly ideal when it comes to equal rights for African-Americans. Nice to hear Bush doesn’t actually think property rights always have to trump human liberty though.

1:20 Good that Kerry’s tying abortion to class and to international family planning. Don’t particularly need him or his wife counseling me out of abortion.

1:21 If by “reduce the number of abortions in America,” you mean reduce access to safe and legal abortion, then yeah.

1:23 When Kerry explains the problem with Bush’s argument, and Bush responds by saying it’s actually simple and not responding to the criticism, I wouldn’t say straight-shooter is the term that comes to mind.

1:24 Is Bush’s biggest mistake an appointment he made?

1:25 So now, contra Cheney, there may have been little military mistakes made – they’re just not that important.

1:26 And it was apparently a mistake to appoint people principled enough to call him out on his mistakes.

1:27 Ah, the $87 billion. How we’ve missed hearing about it.

1:28 “He wants you kids to pay for it. I wanted us to pay for it.” True that.

1:29 Please don’t screw this up, John.

1:31 Well, no memorable sound bytes in that one for us or for them. And “respected at home and stronger in the world” still makes me groan. But optimism is recommendable.

1:33 Nothing so memorable from Bush’s closing either. Fitting, maybe, for a debate which had fewer “moments” than the two before or, likely, than the last one next week. My immediate reaction is that Bush failed to halt Kerry’s momentum going in. Bush was certainly much, much better than the last time – meaning he wasn’t a train wreck. But Kerry did more to respond to his opponent’s arguments, and to the audience’s questions, than Bush, and did so more effectively. Still, he missed a good share of opportunities – or dropped them half-way. And my last question before signing off would have to be: Right now, walking off the stage, is this the first time in the campaign that Bush is walking into a crowd he couldn’t vet first?

More debate errata:

No surprise that Cheney’s relationship with the truth is about as close as his relationship with, say, Nelson Mandela. But while there’ve been plenty of more significant lies from him and his campaign, one is particularly easy to shoot down with one pic:

Speaking of which, it takes a special kind of chutzpah for someone on a ticket with George Bush to use the term AWOL to describe his opponent’s attendance Senate record rather than, say, his running mate’s attendance at one of those institutions which contextualize the expression AWOL (no, not Yale).

And speaking of strange imagery, who thought it would be a good idea to trot out Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) to announce that Cheney took Edwards behind a wood shed. Bizarre sexual imagery aside, is that really the Republican message to America? Now back to the bizarre sexual imagery…

Very good: “They value wealth. We value work.” I’ve always wished the Democrats would make more of the moral sinkhole behind having the government take a larger chunk of the money you make working than the money you make investing. That, and that they’d come up with better catch phrases. That one’s a keeper.