John McCain scored the zinger of the night with, "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
But his performance in the third debate was, in fact, incredibly Bush-like, mirroring Bush's signature stubbornness -- especially on Iraq -- by doubling down on a failed strategy.
McCain's reliance on angry, negative, personal attacks on Obama -- including the pathetic Ayers smear and ACORN "destroying the fabric of democracy" -- has been an unequivocal failure, with the poll numbers to prove it. But instead of course-correcting, McCain doubled down tonight -- coming across as angrier and meaner than ever before.
This debate wasn't decided on the arguments being made. It was won on the reaction shots. Every time Obama spoke, McCain grimaced, sneered, rapidly blinked, or rolled his eyes. "He looked like Captain Ahab, again and again going after Moby Dick," John Cusack told me. "Or an animal caught in a bear trap. He even seemed pissed at Joe the Plumber."
McCain's contemptuous reactions were so intense and frequent, they've already been turned into a YouTube video. The disdain McCain feels for Obama was unmistakable. It's as if Obama is not just blocking his way to the White House, but robbing him of his destiny.
By contrast, every time McCain was on the attack, Obama was smiling. And the nastier McCain got, the brighter Obama's smile became. It was the non-verbal equivalent of Reagan's disarming "There you go again" -- and it served to underline McCain's need for anger management. The angrier McCain got, the more unruffled Obama appeared.
It was like watching a split-screen double feature -- Grumpy Old Men playing side by side with Cool Hand Luke.
McCain was frantic -- as though he was running out of time, which he is -- throwing everything he had at Obama, logical connection between thoughts be damned. In one memorable answer, he brought up Colombia, quickly jumping from free trade, to drugs killing young Americans, to hostages freed from Colombian rebels, to job creation.
Colombia also brought out one of McCain's most sneering reactions, chiding Obama for never having "traveled south of our border" -- a jaw-dropping line of attack from the man who chose Sarah "Just Got My Passport" Palin as his No. 2.
Another head-scratcher: McCain's claim that "talking about a positive plan of action to restore this economy" is "what my campaign is all about." Really?
This is another way in which McCain's campaign mirrors Bush's handling of the Iraq war: not only doubling down on a failed strategy but also engaging in an endless search for an underlying rationale.
McCain's campaign was all about experience -- until he picked Palin. It was all about putting country first -- until he picked Palin. It was all about the success of the surge -- until everyone from General Petraeus and the authors of the latest NIE made it clear that victory in Iraq exists only in McCain's and Palin's stump speeches. It was all about William Ayers -- until voters rejected that line of attack. It was all about national security -- until the economy collapsed.
Now it looks like it's going to be all about Joe the Plumber -- and Sarah Palin's "expertise" on autism. Note to Sen. McCain, check out Palin's record as an advocate for special needs kids. She may understand their problems "better than almost any American that I know," but she sure isn't making their life easier in her state. (Is it any wonder McCain choked on the words as he referred to Palin as a "bresh of freth air"?)
Another note to McCain: If your mentioning Hillary Clinton three times in the debate was an attempt to win the hearts of women, putting women's "health" in air quotes and labeling it the concern only of "extreme" pro-abortionists was not a very good way to close the deal. He can kiss those women -- and those pro-choice swing voters -- good-bye.
McCain's spirit at the beginning of the debate quickly curdled into a desperate rage. And looking at the post-debate insta-polls, one thing became crystal: for voters, a lot of anger doesn't go a long way.
Obama closed by promising to "work every single day, tirelessly, on your behalf." McCain closed by just sounding tired -- exhausted by all the unleashed fury.