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McCain's Debate Air Quotes Badly "Misfired"

When it comes to dismissive finger gestures, there is nothing quite like the two-handed "air quote." For pure sarcastic appeal, it beats the much more obvious middle finger every time. But beware what words you put inside those little air quotes. John McCain used the gesture twice during his final debate with Barack Obama and each time it misfired. Actually, you can put "misfired" in air quotes. What I really mean is it blew up in his face.

The first time came when the two were discussing energy and free trade. McCain said, "Well, you know, I admire so much Senator Obama's eloquence. And you really have to pay attention to words. He said, 'We will look at offshore drilling.' Did you get that? Look at!" Those last two words were accompanied by the twitchy-fingered air quotes.

Snide and sniggering, McCain clearly thought this was a gotcha moment. But the words "look at," in this context, do not come close to the kind of evasive phrase represented by, say, Bill Clinton's "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is." And to build up to this so-called gotcha moment by "admiring" (feel free to make your own little air quotes around that one) Obama's eloquence was sarcastic overkill. "Misfire" number one.

But McCain was on a roll of snide, and his fingers were just itching to use the tactic again. This time it came during a discussion of Roe V. Wade and abortion.

McCain said,"Just again, the example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. He's health for the mother....That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, 'health.'"

OMG, the audacity of health! If you were watching CNN at that moment, you had the added pleasure of seeing just HOW badly this misfired with the focus group of women voters in Ohio. A little graph measuring their reactions to the debate dipped into a death spiral for McCain at that point. I imagine the air quotes made it much more deadly, and not in the way McCain clearly had hoped. The fact that he mentioned Obama's "eloquence" twice, in a sarcastic vein, and that he resorted to his double digit tactic twice (nice symmetry there, if you think about it), might lead one to conclude that McCain had actually been coached to do this, in the same way that he planned to use Joe the Plumber as a touchstone for the little guy. That, too, backfired as we later learned that he not only got Joe's last name wrong, but also the facts of his financial situation. Turns out that Joe the Plumber will actually benefit from Obama's tax cuts.

But I digress. The lesson here is that eloquence trumps snide every time. If you "look at" the reaction of the audience, you'd have to conclude, in fact, that air quotes can be hazardous to your political "health." (Feel free to insert your own gestures here).