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The planetarium to nowhere

By Griffin · October 8th, 2008 · No Comments


Two days ago, I wrote this about how out of touch John McCain’s campaign has become in its final days:

C-SPAN just aired John McCain’s rally in New Mexico, and it looked like it was taking place on a different planet.  McCain’s entire speech was focused on what you don’t know about Barack Obama, what you need to know about Barack Obama, why you shouldn’t trust Barack Obama.  It went into his record as a state senator, his votes on taxes, his associations with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac chairpersons.  At one point, McCain started talking about a planetarium in Chicago for some reason.  No joke, a planetarium.

On a day when the stock market took another historic dive, people simply do not care about what some professor in Chicago who served on a charity board with Barack Obama did 40 years ago.  They also don’t care about Barack Obama’s record on that planetarium or whatever McCain was rambling on about today.

Last night’s debate was one of the final opportunities John McCain will have to convince America to change its mind about President Barack Obama.  And in front of 60 million people, he once again chose to talk about that planetarium in Chicago. Apparently, Barack Obama once authored a $3 million earmark to replace a planetarium projector, and that’s why we’re so dependent on foreign oil, why we’re stuck in Iraq, why the stock market has lost a third of its value in the last two weeks, and why 40 million Americans don’t have health insurance.

It won’t be remembered as the point John McCain lost the presidency.  I think when the history books are written, that day will be seen as September 15th, the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy; or more likely, September 24th, the day McCain suspended his campaign– in what had to be the most transparent political stunt in history– and lost the trust of the American people to handle a crisis.  But the moment last night when John McCain started talking about that planetarium in Chicago will be remembered by me as the moment I knew the race was over.

John McCain is an extraordinarily small man running for president in a historically big time.  People will undoubtedly focus on his overt pettiness– his refusal to look at Obama in the first debate and his snide reference to him as “that one” last night.  But the smallness of John McCain goes so much deeper than that; it’s so much more fundamental.

In an election year of unprecedented financial crisis and two wars abroad, McCain’s initial campaign message to the country was, “I’m a former POW, an all-around fantastic and super patriotic guy, and I deserve to be president!”  As if the five years he spent in Vietnam 30 years ago was going to pay your child’s medical bills.  His new message– since his repeated lies on the campaign trail and his transparently dangerous VP choice has forced America to see through the first– is, “Barack Obama is a big jerk, an all-around scary and unpatriotic guy, and he doesn’t deserve to be president!”  As if the time Obama spent years ago serving on a charity board with someone named Bill Ayers is going to lower the value of your house.

There’s nothing wrong with building a campaign message on character.  But when it’s your only message, you lose.  When the economy is crumbling around you, and you’re picking through your opponent’s Senate votes to find a funny-sounding earmark– hey, how about this planetarium in Chicago!– you lose.  When you are a small man running on small ideas in a sweeping change election, you lose.

These two graphs from economist Mark Thoma illustrate exactly how small McCain’s ideas are. First, those earmarks McCain keeps obsessing over:

Earmarks by percentage of the federal budget

And McCain’s “Drill, baby, drill” energy plan to free us from foreign oil:

New offshore drilling

Those two brightly colored slivers on each graph represent John McCain’s message to America. In an election year when it could not be clearer that we as a country are fundamentally headed in the wrong direction, those two slivers are the change McCain is offering us. And that’s why last night, when I heard McCain using this enormous national debate platform to talk about a planetarium in Chicago, I knew this race was officially over.

A few random notes:

By and large, the debate was a complete waste of time. It covered nearly the exact same ground as the first debate (45 minutes on the financial crisis and mortgages, 30 minutes on the Middle East, and 15 minutes on Russia, health care, trade, and global warming), and the format wasn’t much different either. The town hall turned out to be nothing more than a bunch of people– somber people who all seemed to have recently lost a best friend– standing up to read the same questions Tom Brokaw would have asked anyway. We’re almost two years into this campaign, and everyone has heard all the talking points. At this point, any debate format that allows the candidates to so easily pivot to their stump speeches is a failure.

It’s amazing how the economy has drowned out all the hot-button social issues. I guess gays getting married doesn’t seem like such a crisis when you’re about to lose your life savings.

John McCain’s strongest moment was when he shook the hand of that officer in the audience and thanked him for his service. Barack Obama’s strongest moment was when he talked about his mother fighting with insurance companies while dying of cancer. The CNN undecided voter dial flew off the charts there.

The undecided voters at CBS really didn’t like McCain referring to Obama as “that one.” One man described it as “childish” and “aggressive”– exactly the meme McCain has been trying to avoid lately. It’s surprising that McCain doesn’t have the discipline to control his distaste for Barack Obama for even just 90 minutes. The fact that he’s on TV in front of 60 million people and his entire two-year campaign is on the line doesn’t seem to make a difference. Oh, and apparently the RNC immediately blasted out an e-mail applauding McCain’s use of “that one” and promising he’d use it more in the future. Good, do that. Personally, I think deliberately doing things that make you appear less and less likeable in a campaign focused almost entirely on your character is bad politics, but then again I’m not a maverick.

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Tags: Barack Obama · Debates · Democrats · John McCain · Republicans


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