Three moments in Wednesday night’s debate struck me as crucial.
#1. Obama described McCain’s pettiness:
OBAMA: . . . And, now, I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings during the course of the campaign than addressing the issues that matter to them so deeply.
But McCain seemed unable to leave his narcissistic injuries behind.
#2. Obama stood up for women’s right to equal pay for equal work:
OBAMA: . . . Senator McCain and I disagreed recently when the Supreme Court made it more difficult for a woman named Lilly Ledbetter to press her claim for pay discrimination.
For years, she had been getting paid less than a man had been paid for doing the exact same job. And when she brought a suit, saying equal pay for equal work, the judges said, well, you know, it’s taken you too long to bring this lawsuit, even though she didn’t know about it until fairly recently.
We tried to overturn it in the Senate. I supported that effort to provide better guidance to the courts; John McCain opposed it.
I think that it’s important for judges to understand that if a woman is out there trying to raise a family, trying to support her family, and is being treated unfairly, then the court has to stand up, if nobody else will. And that’s the kind of judge that I want.
SCHIEFFER: Time’s up.
MCCAIN: Obviously, that law waved the statute of limitations, which you could have gone back 20 or 30 years. It was a trial lawyer’s dream.
This seemed a massive failure of political acumen on McCain’s part. I don’t think many women voters will be pleased to learn that for McCain, the principle of equal pay for equal work runs a very distant second to the integrity of the statute of limitations.
#3. Obama stood up for unions:
McCAIN: . . . But let me give you another example of a free trade agreement that Senator Obama opposes. Right now, because of previous agreements, some made by President Clinton, the goods and products that we send to Colombia, which is our largest agricultural importer of our products, is — there’s a billion dollars that we — our businesses have paid so far in order to get our goods in there.
Because of previous agreements, their goods and products come into our country for free. So Senator Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, opposes the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The same country that’s helping us try to stop the flow of drugs into our country that’s killing young Americans.
And also the country that just freed three Americans that will help us create jobs in America because they will be a market for our goods and products without having to pay — without us having to pay the billions of dollars — the billion dollars and more that we’ve already paid.
Free trade with Colombia is something that’s a no-brainer. But maybe you ought to travel down there and visit them and maybe you could understand it a lot better.
OBAMA: Let me respond. Actually, I understand it pretty well. The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions.
And what I have said, because the free trade — the trade agreement itself does have labor and environmental protections, but we have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights, which is why, for example, I supported the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement which was a well-structured agreement.
But I think that the important point is we’ve got to have a president who understands the benefits of free trade but also is going to enforce unfair trade agreements and is going to stand up to other countries.
McCain’s complaint here is so incoherent as to be nearly incomprehensible, but he seems to be saying that America had nothing to lose from a free trade agreement with Colombia, as far as tariffs are concerned, and owed Colombia such an agreement because it’s an ally of ours. Obama, however, points out that America would lose something: a principled stand on human rights. According to Human Rights Watch, over four hundred labor leaders have been assassinated in Colombia during the six years of Alvaro Uribe’s administration, and almost none of the murderers have been brought to justice. And by pointing this out, and by standing up for labor leaders in Colombia, Obama showed his solidarity with union members in America. I suspect this may have been the moment he won their votes. Protectionism is ultimately self-defeating, but it is not specious to object to a free-trade agreement for shifting jobs from countries where workers have civil rights to ones where they don’t. Obama demonstrated that he knows when the unions have a point and that he’s willing to recognize it publicly. The white working class is said to be the last remaining demographic that Obama needs but is not yet sure of (cf. this great article by George Packer), but if union members were listening, at this moment Obama showed them where he stands.