In Jerry Maguire (1996), Tom Cruise plays the title character, a sports agent who starts to feel guilty about the dishonesty in his business. To salve his conscience, he writes and distributes a mission statement, “The Things We Think and Do Not Say.”
That phrase hung in the air last night. Obama and McCain are both pretty smart fellows who said things that didn’t quite hold together. As they were talking, they must have stifled much of what they were thinking. Here are some guesses as to as to what those thoughts may have been.
McCain: “Americans are hurting right now, and they’re angry. They’re hurting, and they’re angry. They’re innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street and as well as Washington, D.C.” And a lot of them are also victims of their own bad judgment. Nobody tortured them into taking out mortgages that they couldn’t pay off.
Obama: “And 95 percent of working families, 95 percent of you out there, will get a tax cut.” Okay, strictly speaking, a lot of them out there don’t have any income tax liability in the first place. What they’ll actually get is a refundable tax credit. What the heck, a check is a check. Okay, John, I hope you call me on this. Go ahead and shoot Santa Claus. “Now, the conversation I had with Joe the plumber …” Argh, enough of Joe the Plumber! He’s probably bitter about hard water and clings to his basin wrench.”
Schieffer: “[T]he cost of your proposals, even with the savings you claim can be made, each will add more than $200 billion to the deficit. Aren’t you both ignoring reality? Won’t some of the programs you are proposing have to be trimmed, postponed, even eliminated?” McCain and Obama: Well, duh! Of course they will.
Obama: “We need to eliminate a whole host of programs that don’t work. And I want to go through the federal budget line by line, page by page, programs that don’t work, we should cut.” Yikes, I was reading Carter speeches last night, and I just paraphrased one: “We’re simply going line by line, item by item through the budget to limit or to cut those things we cannot afford.” Note to self: Ask Joe Biden what to do if they accuse me of plagiarism.
McCain: “During the Depression era, we had a thing called the home ownership loan corporation.” Oh no, did I just mention the Depression? So much for instilling confidence and defusing the age issue. “I would have, first of all, across-the-board spending freeze.” Yeah, right, like Pelosi and Reid will ever let that happen.
Obama: “I don’t mind being attacked for the next three weeks.” Yes, I do.
McCain: “In fact, some T-shirts that are very…” Oh, I wish I could quote what they’re saying about Sarah on those T-shirts. But you can’t say those words on broadcast TV. If only we were debating on HBO…”
Obama: “Joe Biden, I think, is one of the finest public servants that has served in this country. It’s not just that he has some of the best foreign-policy credentials of anybody.” Not only that, he’s got Neil Kinnock’s credentials, too.
It was probably prudent of the candidates not to give voice to these thoughts. Remember what happens to Jerry Maguire after he puts out his mission statement? He gets fired.
— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.