McCain Calls Obama ‘That One’: Why?

By
Mother Hale, as Nancy Reagan's guest during
Ronald's 1985 State of the Union Address.
Photo: Getty Images

Despite being down in the polls and running short on time, John McCain seemed “unwilling or unable,” as Barack Obama likes to say, to create a game-changing moment last night. And with a lack of stunts, surprises, policy gaffes, major confrontations, or, frankly, interesting questions, one moment stood out from the rest of the debate. It came when McCain was talking about a pork-laden energy bill: “Who voted for it? You might never know — that one,” McCain said, gesturing at Obama. “Who voted against it? Me.” The phrase “that one” is being dissected by political observers, who, in a testament to the moment’s weirdness, haven’t come close to a consensus on its meaning. (Get Heilemann's take here.) Was it an intentional sign of disrespect? Unintentional? A regrettable use of a common old-people term? Was it … racist?

• John B. Judis claims the line “suddenly revealed the contempt [McCain] feels for the Illinois senator.” [Plank/New Republic]

• Hilzoy compares it to “the way you talk about an annoying child, if you don't much care for children. It was odd, and, I think, revealing.” [Political Animal/Washington Monthly]

• Tom Shales writes that it was “another of his seemingly demeaning, nasty references to Obama,” which “contributed to McCain's image as a kind of mean old Scrooge, not so much a battle-scarred warrior as an embittered one.” [WP]

• Marc Ambinder explains that “that one” is part of a routine McCain frequently uses in stump speeches, but “the set-up is usually clearer” and “it came off awkwardly on stage” last night. [Atlantic]

• Mark Halperin suspects the moment “probably jarred some viewers.” [Page/Time]

• Chris Cillizza thinks it was probably “unintentional” but “unlucky” for McCain, because it “stood out” in a debate “almost entirely devoid of news or quotable one-liners.” [Fix/WP]

• John Nichols believes McCain, “who after a quarter century on Capitol Hill surely knows the political etiquette, could not bring himself to” refer to Obama respectfully. But it wasn’t a mistake; it was part of the entire campaign to portray Obama as a “messianic character who sees himself in something akin to Biblical terms.” [Campaign '08/Nation]

• Andrew Sullivan calls it the “moment the contempt spilled over.” [Atlantic]

• Ezra Klein contends the phrase came off as “tone-deaf,” “Grandpa Simpson,” and “cranky,” dismissing Obama “in the language a busy mother uses for her third child, as if he couldn't be bothered to recall the youngster's name.” But Obama is a senator and leading presidential candidate, and “McCain is doing himself no favors by acting unable to treat his opponent with respect.” [American Prospect]

• James Fallows says it “creates an impression that may be impossible to erase.” [Atlantic]

• Michael Scherer says “that one” represented “deep tension between the two men,” and showed that McCain holds Obama “in low regard.” [Swampland/Time]

• Michael Schaffer uses “this one” and “that one” himself “for vaguely humorous effect,” so he doesn’t “see much contempt in John McCain's now-infamous use of the latter term.” In fact, “people who like him” probably just “saw a goofy way of engaging in Senatorial finger-pointing.” [Plank/New Republic]

• John Dickerson doesn’t “see it as a major act of disrespect, but it did feel antiquated,” an expression his “older relatives” use. [Slate]

• Josh Marshall, at the time, “wasn't quite sure what to make of” it, though it “sounded demeaning.” [Talking Points Memo]

• Noam Scheiber calls it the “culmination” of some “bizarrely geriatric” diction. It was “language befitting a grandchild who refuses to eat his broccoli.” [Stump/New Republic]

• Andrew Romano thinks it “seemed to sum up McCain's dismissive attitude toward his opponent,” and, “[g]iven the MSM's obsession with soundbites, ‘That One’ may be all we remember of tonight's tedious debate in two weeks' time.” [Stumper/Newsweek]

• Maureen Dowd accuses McCain of using “that one” as part of the strategy to paint Obama as “the Other,” someone for whom “white Americans should not open the door.” [NYT]

• Kathryn Jean Lopez scoffs: “Dismissive, sure. Racist? Give me a break.” [Corner/National Review]

• Jonathan Stein agrees with Lopez: “Condescension, yes. Racism, no.” [MojoBlog/Mother Jones]

Related: Heilemann: Obama Closes the Deal in Second Debate

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.