Saturday, September 27, 2008

McCain's Waffles

by Gail Collins
The New York Times
September 27, 2008

John McCain looked a bit off his game during the big presidential debate. Maybe he was exhausted from parachuting into Washington to resolve the financial crisis. Really, there are only so many hills a man can charge up in the course of a single week.

The debate had barely begun, the financial crisis barely addressed, when McCain started off on government spending. “You know, we spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana ...”

Oh, no! Not the bear study. Congress is working feverishly on the $700 billion rescue of the national financial system and McCain is complaining again about the $3 million the Senate blew to help determine whether the grizzlies are still an endangered species.

To be fair, both McCain and Barack Obama appeared equally eager to move past the central issue of the day and on to — anything else. Neither seems capable of saying anything about the credit crisis except that it’s important to protect Main Street from Wall Street. Don’t the other streets of America deserve a little consideration, candidates? Can we have a few mentions for Elm Street once in a while? What about Broadway?

Least compelling moment following the bear DNA episode: the intense argument over whose position on negotiating with Iran was most like Henry Kissinger’s.

This was supposed to be the foreign affairs debate, and it’s hard to beat down McCain on foreign affairs — anybody who can start a sentence with “I’ve been to Waziristan ...” has a natural advantage. But Obama really more than held his own.

“John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007,” he said. “You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003. And at the time, when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong.” Although this is a very old argument, it sounded remarkably fresh, like revisiting semiforgotten territory.

McCain stumbled over the name of the president of Iran and misstated the name of the new leader of Pakistan. This would, under normal circumstances, be less than nothing. But the first presidential debate is meant to be an event so fraught with meaning that combat to the death pales in comparison. Every word matters!

This campaign has been so chock full of excitement, however, that the debate lost some of its normal most-important-moment-in-history sheen. The real tension, after all, had been getting McCain there in the first place. A simple trip to Mississippi turned into a saga featuring many, many rapidly changing story lines:

* Cancel the debate!

* Maybe cancel the debate!

* No debate unless Congress passes a financial rescue bill!

* No debate unless Congress has a plan to pass a financial rescue bill.

* Oh, what the heck.

After all that, when the wandering debater finally showed up Friday night, he just looked like a smallish, grayish, slightly grumpy guy with a grizzly obsession.

To be fair, it had been a very long week for McCain, what with ruling out the debate, ruling in the debate and returning to a Senate from which he has been AWOL so long that it’s believed his desk is now being used to store janitorial supplies.

He raced there in answer to the crisis call, after a brief detour to New York to deliver a desperately needed speech on fossil fuels at the Clinton Global Initiative. He could not have sounded more filled with passion about service and country and the need for his leadership. Then he joined President Bush, Obama and members of Congress in a White House meeting that his campaign had orchestrated, where he sat in near-silence as a bipartisan consensus fell apart.

One thing we now know for sure. Electing John McCain would be God’s gift to the profession of journalism. A story a minute.

Imagine what would happen if a new beetle infested the Iowa corn crop during the first year of a McCain administration. On Monday, we spray. On Tuesday, we firebomb. On Wednesday, the president marches barefoot through the prairie in a show of support for Iowa farmers. On Thursday, the White House reveals that Wiley Flum, a postal worker from Willimantic, Conn., has been named the new beetle eradication czar. McCain says that Flum had shown “the instincts of a maverick reformer” in personally buying a box of roach motels and scattering them around the post office locker room. “I can’t wait to introduce Wiley to those beetles in Iowa,” the president adds.

On Friday, McCain announces he’s canceling the weekend until Congress makes the beetles go away.

Barack Obama would just round up a whole roomful of experts and come up with a plan. Yawn.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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