The proper, respectful and appropriate description for an foe in a debate between two senators is “the senator” or — if there is a desire to get flowery — “my distinguished colleague.”
But Arizona Senator John McCain, who after a quarter century on Capitol Hill surely knows the political etiquette, could not bring himself to refer to Illinois Senator Barack Obama as he would any other colleague.
Discussing a 2005 Senate vote, McCain said, “There was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one,” he said, motioning toward Obama. “You know who voted against it? Me.”
If Obama had referred to McCain as “that one,” he would have been attacked for showing disrespect or ridiculed for being so new to the Senate that he did not understand the basic behaviors of the chamber.
Either way, it would have been a devastating moment.
And it should be for McCain, as well.
Understand what the Republican nominee was doing.
He did not slip up.
The McCain campaign and its media acolytes have for weeks been spinning the notion that Obama is running as some sort of messianic character who sees himself in something akin to Biblical terms.
In internet advertisements, campaign spin and talk-show commentary, Obama is mocked as “the one.”
A McCain Web commercial from earlier this year compared Obama with the Nazarene. That ad opened with the announcer declaring, “It shall be known that in 2008 the world will be blessed. They will call him ‘The One.'”
The ad proceeds to ridicule Obama’s high-minded rhetoric before closing with the narrator telling Americans: “Barack Obama may be ‘The One.’ But is he ready to lead?”
That commercial has long been recognized as one of the more amateurish cheapshots from a campaign characterized all too frequently by amateurish cheapshots.
Now, John McCain has brought the cheapest of the cheapshots to the debate stage.
It was, for a senior senator who has embarrassed himself too many times during this long campaign, a uniquely embarrassing moment.