John McCain's Anger Problem

The most telling poll result from last night's debate was not the CBS survey of uncommitted voters that found Obama trouncing McCain, 53 percent to 22 percent. It was not a Fox News focus group conducted by conservative pollster Frank Luntz that decisively favored Obama. Rather, the most telling result was a subquestion asked in a poll conducted by CNN. "Who spent more time attacking during the debate?" They asked. Seven percent said Barack Obama. Eighty percent said John McCain. It was no surprise, then, that Obama won their poll, too: 58 percent to 31 percent.

John McCain has an anger problem. But not the one many political observers presumed he'd have. He has not lost his temper at a questioner, blown up at a reporter, or exploded during a debate. Rather than a swift detonation, he has settled into a slow burn. He seethes. His debate performances have been shot through with contempt and resentment. The first meeting saw McCain unable to meet Barack Obama's eye, or begin a sentence without first attaching, "what Senator Obama doesn't understand." The second saw him tumble into a Grandpa Simpson moment, smirking wildly at the camera and referring to Obama as "that one." Last night's meeting, however, was McCain's worst: The seated setting led to split-screen coverage, and McCain's face was alive with fury. He grimaced and smirked and sighed. He rolled his eyes and bulged his neck and shook his head. What he said aloud was not nearly so damaging as what his expressions silently betrayed. And so he lost.

John McCain has every right to be angry. He should have beaten George W. Bush in 2000. He lost to the money and smears of a lesser man, and then had to watch that man occupy the most historic presidency of modern times. Imagine McCain, a man who has spent his life thinking about war and honor and duty and sacrifice, observing Bush exhort us to shop after 9/11. What must he thought of that moment? How often must he have thought of what he would do with that moment?

But the years were kind to John McCain, and by 2004, he was arguably the country's most popular politician. The Democrat begged him to be his vice president; the Republican incumbent needed his endorsement. If it had been an open field, he would have won in a walk. And so he made a judgment: He would yoke himself to the Republican Party. He would play the good soldier, and in 2008, he would be promoted to command.

But the world changed on John McCain. The Republican brand is shot. The threat of terrorism has receded from the public imagination. Economic insecurity has come to occupy center stage. Americans are afraid, yes. But what they fear is not what John McCain knows how to fight. You cannot -- or at least, should not -- bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb the economy. You cannot fix Wall Street with a draft. You cannot prop up median wages by gleefully bucking your party on the Sunday shows. This is a year that favors health care plans and regulatory schemes and unemployment benefits. It is not a year that favors John McCain.

And so it is that George W. Bush now looks like he will beat McCain twice. McCain will have lost to the ruthless aptitude of Bush's campaign in 2000, and to the inadequacies of his presidency in 2008. It must be a wrenching realization. Caught between the hard realities of the moment and the sharp failures of George W. Bush, he has done the only thing he can do: Attack. And so he has. He has attacked Obama as inexperienced, as unsettlingly eloquent, as a mere celebrity. He has attacked him for consorting with terrorists and plotting with ACORN. He has attacked him on offshore drilling and abortion and taxes and folksy aphorisms.

He attacks because it is the only strategy open to a candidate down eight points, with 19 days left in the election. Because he doesn't have the policy answer that will vault him ahead of Barack Obama, and because after years in the public eye, there is little left for John McCain to say about John McCain. And as he attacks, he seems ever more inadequate to the moment. Wall Street tumbles, and he speaks of 1960s radicals. Americans lose their homes, and he complains of harsh words from John Lewis. Nine out of ten American express displeasure with the direction of the country, and he cries that Barack Obama did not take public funding. For a man who built his career atop a slew of brave causes and a sense of national purpose, this is an indignity indeed. And so he is angry. But at the wrong things. Viewers see him berating Barack Obama but speaking haltingly about health care. His furies do not match their own.

John McCain's best moment in last night's debate came when he heatedly declared, "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." So too should John McCain. But he did not run four years ago, nor accept John Kerry's offer of a partnership. And so the only man John McCain really has cause to be angry at is himself.