Nostalgic over last '08 debate? Nah!

The last debate! Couldn't help feeling nostalgic. It was a little like the last bonfire at summer camp.

So many memories. That Republican debate where people had to raise their hands if they didn't believe in evolution. The snowman who asked the question about global warming. The time John Edwards made fun of Hillary Clinton's jacket. Dennis Kucinich. Ron Paul. “That one.” And now, the sufferings of Joe the Plumber.

OK, on second thought, perhaps not as much fun as summer camp.

For two years, voters have practically lived with Barack Obama and John McCain. We've watched three dozen debates. We've seen them in groups large enough to stage a small invasion, then one-on-one, then at a faux town hall surrounded by regular people made only slightly irregular by the rule prohibiting any show of emotion. We've seen them debate standing behind lecterns, wandering the stage, and finally sitting around a table! On swivel chairs!

In Wednesday's debate, McCain went on the offensive. He not only managed to compare Barack Obama to Herbert Hoover, he told America that the community group ACORN was “maybe destroying the fabric of democracy” with their sloppy voter-registration programs.

Did Plumber Joe move audience?

Did it work? Was the audience moved by McCain's description of the plight of Joe, the Ohio plumber, who discovered that the Obama program might mean higher taxes for him if he buys a business and it nets more than $250,000 a year?

For a while, it seemed as if Joe was sitting right there at the table. McCain began addressing him directly (“If you're out there, my friend …”) , and the two candidates for president argued over whose health care plan Joe would like best.

You had to give McCain credit for spunk. It's been a dreadful couple of weeks. He built his entire Senate career around low taxes, low spending and a war on those earmarks that his peers use to get special funding for their pet projects. Suddenly he was in Washington voting to give the Treasury secretary $750 billion for what turned out to be a partial-government takeover of the banking system. Not only was he financing a semi-socialist handout to wasteful financiers, the bill was also stuffed with earmarks.

OK, we're ready to move on. We've compared the economic recovery plans. We know more about Bill Ayers than his mother does. We have developed a tic when we hear the words “my friends.” We are really, really well acquainted with Obama and McCain.

Back in the real world . . .

Neither, to be honest, is everything we hoped for when this all began. Back to that camp metaphor: Obama is like the coolest, most popular camper. You can't wait to see him again after school starts. Then you discover that in real life, he's founder of the Model Boat Society and president of the Safety Club. McCain is like the head counselor who led all the hikes and who you wished was your older brother. Until you realized he spent the cold weather hanging out at a biker bar and watching reruns of “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”

And they've moved on, too. None of their effort during the debate was for those of us who have been with them since the beginning. At this point, they only care about the small chunk of undecided voters in swing states. That means a handful of people in Ohio who have managed to avoid noticing that Obama and McCain disagree on virtually every important issue and continue to insist that they are torn between them.

This is one of the reasons the last few weeks of a presidential campaign tend to be so awful. The candidates are gearing their remarks to people who have managed to completely ignore two years of news about the 2008 elections. In the end, it's always all about the ones who play hard to get.