I am as puzzled by John McCain’s performance at the third presidential debate as were the fine folks at Explananda. Purely as rhetoric, I thought it didn’t make any sense. You want to keep your opponent back on his heels, spending so much time responding to your points that he doesn’t have time to make his own. (This is a variant on Joel Spolsky’s Fire-and-Motion idea.) McCain kept lobbing nonsense at Obama that would have almost been considered softballs if they had come from the media. “[H]e voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion” says McCain. Surely the man knows why Obama did this, so surely he knows that Obama will come back with the only retort that’s necessary: “I am completely supportive of a ban on late-term abortions, partial-birth or otherwise, as long as there’s an exception for the mother’s health and life, and this did not contain that exception.” Obama then returns to his argument. People can label him the Teflon don if they want, but I think it’s more sensible to say that McCain just doesn’t know how to throw things that stick.
Rhetoric isn’t just about packaging, though. This is a point that my dear friend Chris Rugen has made time and again in the context of design. Designing a product well doesn’t mean putting pretty wrapping on a box of shit. The product simply cannot be designed well if it’s poorly made. John McCain’s fundamental weakness is not “merely” rhetorical; his fundamental weakness is that he is a poor candidate. We can spend some time mulling over why that might be — that the “maverick” label was always nonsense; that nominating Sarah Palin shows a distinct lack of judgment; that his advisors have turned him into something ugly — but I think it’s pretty inescapable that the Republicans should have nominated someone different. Maybe this just wasn’t a year when they could have advanced a solid candidate.
Being a bad candidate, and being fundamentally a loser on issues that matter, McCain has had no choice but to go negative on nonsensical matters. ACORN, for instance. As everyone who’s been paying attention knows by now, ACORN is not a case of vote fraud; it is at best a case of registration fraud which at no point could have undermined American democracy. Yet McCain had the gall to bring it up during the debate. Whatever would stick, McCain would throw.
It’s the strategy of charlatans everywhere: since the truth is not on their side, lies are all that they have left.