WASHINGTON — John McCain's answer to the first question in Wednesday night's debate was an acknowledgment that "Americans are hurting right now, and they're angry." He said it twice, so there could be no missing the message.
Barack Obama quickly agreed. "Everybody understands at this point that we are experiencing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," he said.
The answers were typical of the personality differences that voters have learned from watching these three debates. McCain dealt with the shattering economic news by focusing on the emotional reactions, while Obama, professorial as usual, wanted to put it into a historical context.
But the larger point for both the candidates and the country is that real-world events are driving politics far more than politicians can affect the course of events.
As they quickly confirmed, neither candidate has much more to offer than modest variations on the actions already undertaken by the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve.
George Bush's job approval ratings hit new lows in last week's polls, but in this economic meltdown, his is the only game in town.
McCain and Obama — two of the less influential senators when it comes to issues of banking, budgets and taxes — can no more seize the moment with decisive action than can the plumber Joe Wurzelbacher, who became a foil for their debate.
When McCain tried three weeks ago to insert himself into the drama by announcing that he was suspending campaigning and flying back to Washington, he ended up simply dramatizing his own irrelevance.
Obama was smarter to play it cool, and the polls show he has benefited. Confidence in his performance has grown and his margins over McCain have improved nationally and in most of the battleground states.
As the race comes down to the final two weeks, the tactical advantages are almost all on Obama's side. Having broken his word on public financing, he has vastly more money than McCain to flood the airwaves with ads, and a deeper field operation of volunteer-staffed local headquarters.
The public distemper with George Bush is so pervasive now that nearly all the candidates running on the Republican ticket — not just McCain but senators and representatives who thought they were well ahead — have seen their polls turn sickly.
When Obama accused McCain in the debate of offering nothing but a continuation of Bush's policies, McCain protested, "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I'm going to give a new direction to this economy in this country."
But his protestations are in vain. So far as the voters I've interviewed are concerned, there has been only one economic policy for the past eight years and it bears the name of Bush. Even now, with the bankruptcy of that policy, it is only the White House calling the signals.
Given the near-impossibility of McCain's position, Obama should be enjoying a near-waltz through every possible challenge. The topics on the final debate were made-to-order for any Democrat. Once they quit arguing about the economy, and the character of their own campaigns, they turned to trade, health care, the Supreme Court and education.
Despite the fact that he was playing on the Democrats' turf, McCain made a spirited case for himself on all these topics. And he made a better case for Sarah Palin than she perhaps deserved — given the damage she has caused McCain among suburban independents.
But whether they have been standing or seated, rooted in place or wandering the stage, Obama has usually managed to assert his presence forcefully but quietly, no matter what McCain has tried to do.
McCain's real opponents in this race are the economic collapse and the shattered political reputation Bush has inflicted on Republicans.
But Obama has done his part by avoiding any errors and presenting a minimal target to the opposition.
As a first-time candidate, he has looked consistently self-assured. And assurance is a valuable commodity in times like these.
David Broder's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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