McCain’s debatable strategy

John McCain faced a hard choice Wednesday evening: He could conduct his final debate with Barack Obama on the high plane of principle and risk losing the election, or he could engage in personal acrimony and risk destroying his argument that, for him, it is country first. He chose to attack.

For a few minutes, it seemed that the debate might elicit the better qualities of both men. They welcomed one another, and McCain addressed Obama directly and respectfully, as he had once refused to do. That was his civility high point of the evening, which too often turned on scripted retorts. “Senator Obama,” McCain said in one, “I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.” Not exactly Lloyd Bentsen lying in wait for Dan Quayle, but delivered in the same spirit.

Then came the big blow: McCain, who has allowed surrogates to thrash Obama over his relationship with William Ayers, an ex-Weatherman who once engaged in bombing, now took up the cudgel himself. “I don’t care about an old washed-up terrorist,” he said. “But as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship.” McCain charged that ACORN, a community organizing group that Obama has supported and that has been accused of padding voter registration rolls, is “maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” And then, returning to Ayers, McCain alleged that Obama launched his political career in the former Weatherman’s living room, an assertion for which there is no recorded basis.

Throughout, Obama adopted a look of incredulity, but even his reserve was cracked by McCain’s pivot out of the politics of personal attack. Immediately after demanding that Obama provide a full accounting of his relationships with ACORN and Ayers, McCain asserted: “My campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America.” That disjointed segue was too much for Obama, who laughed.

Wednesday’s event produced plenty of substance. These two candidates have different tax plans and different healthcare plans. They approach trade differently. Obama believes Roe vs. Wade was properly decided; McCain does not. They are, fundamentally, men of different generations and ideologies, and they don’t like each other much. Indeed, McCain may have revealed himself most clearly in one verbal slip-up late in the event. He referred to Obama, whom he called “that one” in the last debate, as “Senator Government.” This may have been McCain’s last chance to convince the American people that they must choose between a patriot and a bureaucrat; he delivered an argument that may hearten his supporters but that offers little to the wavering voter other than evidence that he will risk what he treasures most in order to win.