Game change is the latest mantra in the lexicon of politics. Game change is what Senator John McCain strove to achieve in the debate last night in the face of wide new support for Senator Barack Obama in the opinion polls. Well, it wasn't for want of trying. Between traveling the high road of policy differences and the low road of Bill Ayers, the alleged washed-out terrorist, McCain chose some of each. It didn't matter.
Obama, exuding the serenity of the frontrunner, repeated positions from previous debates and challenged McCain's premises on health care, education, taxes. The new feature was Joe the Plumber from Toledo, Ohio, whose name was evoked by the contestants 26 times as a symbol of the small-business man coping with taxes. That didn't make much difference either. A CNN poll indicated that 58 percent of debate watchers thought that Obama had won. But that was in a sense misleading. The chances are that most of those had made up their minds before last night.
The real nature of McCain's problem is indicated by his having to say, I am not President Bush, for Obama is running not so much against Senator McCain as against a deepening economic slump that inevitably becomes associated with the party in office. The debate headlines vied with a Washington Post headline, "Bernanke Forecasts Prolonged Economic Turmoil." That is Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. The impact of a shaky economy at this climactic moment in the campaign seems overwhelming. The debates become an incident in history.