So was it really the last debate? Barack Obama seems to think so, saying in last night’s Philadelphia slugfest that he could deliver Clinton’s lines and “she, I’m sure, could deliver mine”. That’s sure what it felt like – the last arguments of a couple who are over, a couple whose dinner parties start tense and collapse into the recitation of ancient wrongs.

First time it happened, it was buttock-clenchingly embarrassing – boy these two either really really like angry makeup sex, or genuinely hate each other. You didn’t know where to look, thought of setting fire to the tablecloth, made your excuses. But the years have gone on, and now it’s got tired. You just wish they’d split up, or that one of them would clutch their chest and fall over.

Obama repeated his “not this time” riff, Hillary her boring “solutions” stuff, and we went round the houses with Obama’s old associates – this time the Weathermen were back, the 60s urban guerrillas who became community activists, presumably on the grounds that the only thing that can do more violence to the social fabric than a hippie with a bomb is a social worker with a clipboard. It’s all peripheral to what the candidates are offering, but it is ratcheting up wounds that McCain will be able to reopen come the actual presidential campaign, should it ever happen, which I am beginning to seriously doubt.

There are still important primaries to be had, North Carolina and Oregon among them, and anything less than a flat loss for Hillary in Pennsylvania, will see her going on to fight them. But you can see why no-one would really want to have more debates. The process is pure zombie now, staggering across the landscape sans brains, sans everything, laying waste to whatever it touches.

It didn’t have to be this way, but to avoid it would have required some sort of agreement between the two candidates as to where they wouldnt go in landing punches on each other. There was no sense that Hillary was ever going to abide by anything like that and, to be fair, what would have most encouraged it would have been Obama being a bit less of a dick, a la the San Francisco speech.

With a more limited range of debate, the primaries would have worked in the Democratic party’s favour, given the virtual non-existence of McCain in the media. The networks try and shoehorn him in — McCain arriving at fundraiser, McCain speaks to a dozen old rich grumpy people somewhere — but it’s sheer desperation, and it doesn’t add up to 20% of the time the Democrats get.

But that has become all to the advantage of McCain. As Obama manages to present himself as a secret far-leftie, with a little help from Hillary, and Hillary presents herself as a pathological liar and fantasist, needing almost no hope from Obama, McCain is left unexposed. Even then, he manages to get a high gaffe rate – as per his total confusion of Sunnis, Shiites etc – but imagine what would be happening if he was still on the stump? Increasingly he’s looking like the only adult in the game, someone relatively uncompromised by his past. Everything’s been thrown at him – an ancient savings and loan scandal, possible affair with a lobbyist – and he’s come through it. More and more you get the feeling that the only thing that can stop the last American hero is a valiant clot breaking off and lodging in a heartvalve, between now and November.

I’ve always presumed that was Mike Huckabee’s thinking, or part of it, in staying in the race so long. Whatever else he might be, the campaign said, crazy theocrat that he is, he ain’t no quitter, and, the coda would go, Mitt Romney clearly is. McCain clearly has hardy genes, but that’s on his mom’s side, and the McCain men basically look like clones of each other. Five years in the Hanoi Hilton may have made him resistant, but who knows? Maybe Republican disarray will be Uncle Ho’s last victory.

The trouble for the Democrats is that, both Hillary and Obama have talked a centrist message for so long, that it’s been forgotten what a longshot it is to get someone up from the left, which is where both of them came from. Five years ago that was taken as read – after all, the last time a northerner was elected as a Democrat president was JFK in 1960, before the youngest candidate in the current race was born. You got a southern governor (or Senate leader) and the north came along for the ride. Indeed as it seems pretty clear that the 1960 election was stolen, you’ve got to back to 1932 and FDR for a clear northern democrat victory from a standing start. Five years ago Hillary was written off as too way out for the American people to accept – now she’s the safe candidate.

The world has changed a lot, but did the Democrats kid themselves about how much? Trouble was, they didn’t have a southern governor on offer this time round – Bill Richardson was from New Mexico which is a very different matter, and John Edwards was a senator, lacking gravitas.

No, what they needed to be safe was a white-haired vigorous southern gov, willing to spruik the need for real health care, but giving off a vibe that he would keep all these whacky ideas and eager youngsters in place. Would have been a boring contest between two old white guys, basically a Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon last outing from beyond the grave, but it would have made the Democrats overwhelming favourite for a 45-state slam dunk.

The corollary of that of course is that if Obama can get up, history will be made not merely because a black guy got up, but because the mountain of sh-t thrown at him wasn’t enough to stop the campaign in its tracks. It would consign to history not merely the “greatest” generation, but also the 60s as well, finally cutting off the long shadow it has cast over all that has come after it.

But mannnnn … after last night’s debate, can’t we just fastforward by common agreement to, say, October 1st and get a bit of intensity back into it?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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