Grouchiness, twitchiness and haughtiness didn’t help John McCain in Wednesday’s debate, but what he said hurt him more than how he said it.

Why did polls and focus groups judge Barack Obama the clear winner of all three presidential debates? For one thing, demeanor and body language do count in these made-for-television encounters. In this area there was no contest: Obama came across as gracious and graceful, while McCain seemed angry and awkward. While McCain’s relentless attacks may have fired up the Republican base, they couldn’t have pleased independents who just wish all the politicians in Washington would stop their constant bickering and get to work.

But I think McCain lost ground in the debates mainly because of his threadbare ideas and solutions. People didn’t hear John McCain the brave iconoclast; they heard John McCain the doctrinaire conservative Republican, circa 1964.

Wednesday’s debate had hardly begun when McCain accused Obama of fomenting “class warfare” through his proposed tax policies. When is the last time anyone used such an archaic term to describe the principle, long established in our tax code, that the wealthy ought to pay taxes at a higher rate than the poor? What are the classes that McCain fears Obama will incite? Will the upper-middle class have to barricade its leafy suburbs against marauding middle-class Jacobins from less-leafy suburbs nearby?

McCain wouldn’t let this point go. Returning far too often to the case of “Joe the plumber” — a man named Joe Wurzelbacher, whom Obama encountered recently in Ohio — McCain charged that Obama’s proposals would raise the man’s taxes. The way McCain put it was that Obama wanted to “take that money from him and spread the wealth around.”

McCain apparently intended the phrase “spread the wealth,” which Obama had uttered in his conversation with Wurzelbacher, to strike fear in the hearts of right-thinking Americans. But it’s nothing more than an accurate definition of taxation, which most human civilizations have long accepted. I guess McCain was reaching back to the days when the idea of redistributing wealth had socialist connotations, but socialism is dead — except on Wall Street, where a huge chunk of the nation’s financial system is now owned by the federal government.

The debate audience also heard McCain go after Obama on the “issue” of his associations. Most people probably knew what McCain was talking about when he mentioned William Ayers, the college professor who was a bomb-throwing Weatherman back in the ’60s when Obama was in grade school; and most people probably scratched their heads or just tuned out when McCain went on about ACORN, the grass-roots community organization.

What came across, I think, was that on a day when the Dow Jones average fell 733 points, McCain wanted to talk about these obscure topics rather than the precarlous state of the economy.

When moderator Bob Schieffer turned to health care, McCain turned once again to a familiar figure: “Now, my old buddy, Joe, Joe the plumber, is out there. Now Joe, Sen. Obama’s plan, if you’re a small business and you are able — and your — the guy that sells to you will not have his capital gains tax increase, which Sen. Obama wants, if you’re out there, my friend, and you’ve got employees, and you’ve got kids, if you don’t get — adopt the health care plan that Sen. Obama mandates, he’s going to fine you.”

At that point, Obama interjected that his plan specifically exempts small businesses from any requirement to either provide health insurance or pay into an insurance pool (which is what McCain refers to as a fine). McCain responded by going back to those dire warnings of wealth-spreading.

The ugliest moment, by far, came when McCain lit into Obama for voting against a ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortions because it did not specify an exception for cases in which the woman’s life or health was endangered. McCain’s voice oozed sarcasm as he gestured with his fingers to put air quotes around the word health, as if it were nothing but a dodge employed by bloodthirsty baby-killers. I found it chilling, and I’ll bet a lot of pro-choice independents did, too.

McCain’s words hurt him more than his scowls. It’s not just the man that people have qualms about, it’s what he stands for.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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