Debate Prediction: McCain Finds His Voice, It Doesn’t Matter

Inadvertently, John McCain brought back memories of George H.W. Bush over the weekend, when in an unusual bit of pre-debate bluster he pledged to “whip” Barack Obama’s “you-know-what” when they face off on Wednesday. That called to mind Bush’s unhelpful boast to a group of New Jersey longshoremen that “we tried to kick a little ass last night” the morning after his 1984 vice presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro.

But actually, it’s another Bush campaign – his doomed re-election effort in 1992 – that more closely parallels the predicament McCain faces as he prepares for the third and final debate, just 20 days before the election.

Like McCain, Bush was matched in ’92 against a much younger and more charismatic opponent (Bill Clinton was 22 years Bush’s junior, while Obama is 25 years younger than McCain) and burdened with a feeble economy that defined the campaign and for which most voters blamed his party.

Just like this year, there were three debates in ’92, and Bush (like McCain) did himself no favors in the first two, failing to eat into Clinton’s sizable lead or to change any of the prevailing dynamics of the campaign. As the final debate approached on October 19 of that year, Bush trailed by a double-digit margin – only a few points more than McCain now trails Obama. Bush – like McCain now – badly needed a “game-changer” to close the gap.

He didn’t quite get that when the candidates (including independent Ross Perot) met at Michigan State University, but Bush did turn in a noticeably more aggressive and focused performance, repeatedly attacking Clinton as an untrustworthy tax-and-spend liberal who had failed to level with the American people about the true cost of his plans.

“Mr. and Mrs. America,” Bush railed, “when you hear him say, ‘We’re going to tax only the rich,’ watch your wallet because his figures don’t add up and he’s going to sock it right to the middle-class taxpayer and lower if he’s going to pay for all the spending programs he’s proposed.”

Bush also ridiculed Clinton’s record as governor of Arkansas, reeling off one statistical category after another in which the state was at or near the bottom.

Taking the bait, Clinton defended his record and said that he wanted to do for America what he’d done for Arkansas.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Bush fired back.

Clinton, a naturally strong communicator, had his moments and held his own (as did the folksy Perot), but if there was a common theme in news coverage of the debate it was that Bush, after floundering around for months, had finally found his voice and was, at last, hitting his challenger where he was vulnerable. Bush’s campaign team was certainly enthusiastic.

“The focus of the election has finally shifted off of where it was – 24 hours a day on the economy,” Ron Kaufman, the White House political director, declared.

Bush’s debate performance visibly re-energized him over the final two weeks, when he hammered away at the same message across the country. But it only had a marginal effect on the polls. Bush did chip away at Clinton’s lead, but he was really just picking off low-hanging fruit, given that the Republican ticket had been woefully underperforming with traditional G.O.P. voters for months. So while he narrowed the gap to mid- to high-single digits, he never seriously threatened to take the lead, losing by over six points on Election Day.

It’s a bad precedent for McCain, who has signaled his intent to play the same tax-and-spend card against Obama that Bush relied on against Clinton. Just like Bush scoffed at Clinton’s pledge to offer a middle-class tax cut (something that Clinton, as president, failed to deliver), McCain now mocks Obama’s promise that 95 percent of all Americans will receive a tax cut under his administration. McCain’s attack rests on the same premise as Bush’s did: My opponent’s numbers don’t add up!

Among some voters, this strategy will work. But the same factors that limited its effectiveness 16 years ago are at work now. Obama, like Clinton, is a poised communicator and a likable presence to most voters. McCain may land a few punches in the debate, but it’s unlikely that Obama will go down. Also, McCain, like Bush, doesn’t exactly come to this argument with clean hands. Just as Clinton was able to throw back in his opponent’s face Bush’s failure to live up to this “no new taxes” pledge, Obama can respond to McCain’s tax-and-spend attacks by noting that McCain once attacked the very tax cuts he now supports as irresponsible – and that the combination of those tax cuts and McCain’s own spending plans is certain to (further) explode the deficit.

There’s a good chance McCain will perform strongly on Wednesday night, and that Obama, will spend much of the night absorbing attacks. But as George Bush found out in 1992, that’s just not enough to turn a lopsided election around.

Debate Prediction: McCain Finds His Voice, It Doesn’t Matter