Something interesting happened last night at the third presidential debate: John McCain showed up.
McCain had a whole lot left. Like that character from the prequel, he didn't throw any knockout punches but he fought.
By the way, that thing we told you about yesterday ... you know the George Mason University professor who said, "You are more likely to be killed by a meteor dropping on your head than McCain becoming president."
We checked - for the sake of humanity. That was just an analogy. Not an actual true law of physics.
No one is annointing McCain "44" but his performance means there's a lot less "shoulda, woulda and couldas" from conservatives this morning. Perhaps most viewers, as Monitor colleague Dante Chinni points out, believe Obama won the debate.
From almost the beginning, McCain was on offense. At first down and everything to go, McCain didn't throw up a Hail Mary, rather he threw up a "Hey Joe" -- as in Joe the plumber.
We told you about Joe the plumber earlier this week (and got tons of angry mail for merely bringing him up.)
He was the guy Barack Obama spoke to last weekend while canvassing a neighborhood outside of Toledo. Joe Wurzelbacher, a self-employed plumber, explained to Obama that he was in a position to buy a business. But if he bought a truck and expanded the business, he wondered if his success would be greeted by a penalty in the form of higher taxes.
Obama to plumber
Obama said he didn't want to "punish his success."
He said, "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance for success too. My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody … I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody."
This of course, had the right wing of the blogosphere erupting.
Straight Joe talk
McCain tapped into that anger last night by looking at the television screen as if to talk directly to Joe.
"Joe, I want to tell you, I'll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for ... I'll keep your taxes low and I'll provide available and affordable health care for you and your employees," he said.
"And ... I will not stand for a tax increase on small business income," he continued. "Fifty percent of small business income taxes are paid by small businesses. That's 16 million jobs in America. And what you [Obama] want to do to Joe the plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business."
McCain didn't stop there. In fact, as our friend Andy Malcolm at the LA Times notes, Joe came up 26 times last night. Mostly by McCain.
Who's the moderator?
"That's what Joe believes," McCain said stepping on Obama.
When McCain allowed Obama to speak on the issue, he - not surpringly - had a different recollection of the conversation: "What I essentially said to him was, 'Five years ago, when you were in a position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then.'
"And what I want to do is to make sure that the plumber, the nurse, the firefighter, the teacher, the young entrepreneur who doesn't yet have money, I want to give them a tax break now. And that requires us to make some important choices."
"Not only do 98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000, but I also want to give them additional tax breaks, because they are the drivers of the economy," he continued. "They produce the most jobs."
McCain wasn't done. In his mind the issue of spreading the wealth around was "class warfare." McCain questioned the idea of raising taxes now in light of the current economic situation.
"Why would you want to increase anybody's taxes right now?" McCain asked. "Why would you want to do that, anyone, anyone in America, when we have such a tough time, when these small business people, like Joe the plumber, are going to create jobs, unless you take that money from him and spread the wealth around."
Tax cuts for most
Obama countered that under his plan he would cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. "Now, it is true that my friend and supporter, Warren Buffett, for example, could afford to pay a little more in taxes in order..."
Then McCain decided to play the role of moderator by injecting, "We're talking about Joe the plumber..."
To which Obama continued, "...in order to give additional tax cuts to Joe the plumber before he was at the point where he could make $250,000."
Obama mentioned Exxon Mobil as a company that could afford to pay more taxes. Obama said the oil giant made record profits of more than $12 billion over the past few quarters.
"So, look, nobody likes taxes," Obama said. "I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself. But ultimately, we've got to pay for the core investments that make this economy strong and somebody's got to do it."
McCain then challenged Obama saying, "Nobody likes taxes. Let's not raise anybody's taxes. OK?"
Obama didn't take the bait responding with, "Well, I don't mind paying a little more."
Joe's health care
Joe the plumber would not go away. On Joe the plumber and health care, McCain charged under Obama's plan if Joe didn't "adopt the health care plan that Senator Obama mandates, he's going to fine you."
Not so, said Obama.
"I exempt small businesses from the requirement for large businesses that can afford to provide health care to their employees, but are not doing it.
"I exempt small businesses from having to pay into a kitty. But large businesses that can afford it, we've got a choice. Either they provide health insurance to their employees or somebody has to."
A sarcastic McCain replied, "Now, Joe, you're rich, congratulations, and you will then fall into the category where you'll have to pay a fine if you don't provide health insurance that Senator Obama mandates, not the kind that you think is best for your family, your children, your employees, but the kind that he mandates for you."
What's Joe the plumber think? He toured the morning shows today just like a candidate.
"Just because you work a little harder, to have more money taken from you -- that's scary," Wurzelbacher said. "Why should they be penalized for being successful? ... That's wrong. ... Obama wants to take that basic right and penalize me for it. That's a very socialistic view."
How did this unknown plumber from Ohio get to be the centerpiece of the debate anyway? He discussed the whole thing with Katie Couric last night. You can read the whole transcript here. In a nutshell, he thought his neighbors were too soft on the Democratic nominee.