My initial idea for taking in tonight’s town hall debate was to do so with headphones and without visuals. I’ll admit, over the past month or so, the visual component has played a heavier role in how I perceived the outcomes as opposed to what was being said. Ultimately I simply watched the CBS coverage in the standard way. So let’s put aside the vision part of the television, moderator Tom Brokaw’s incessant needling over time constraints, and focus on what was said.
Unlike the dynamic found during the primaries, Barack Obama is attempting to tie what he will do with how he will do it. John McCain relies on a long strand of “just vote for me” and “I know what needs to be done”– which simply drives me insane. First, if he actually knew how to accomplish these things, as he keeps saying with such certitude, why did he wait until he was running for president? If you have a solution and you withhold it until it is politically beneficial to you, what does that say about your decision-making ability or, more precisely, your opportunistic character?
Don’t get me wrong – all politicians are opportunistic. It’s in the red blood cells of the profession. But when it comes to thinking through the haze of a crisis, or a potential crisis, (The hunt for al Qaeda for, example), and focusing everything on that specific mandate, a left turn is taken at Albuquerque to wage war on an unrelated country on the basis of past grudges, Oedipal comeuppance, unverified intelligence and basically shining that sloppy free throw into a “slam dunk.â€ I need someone to convince me more than just saying: “Vote for me ’cause I know what to do.” I need much, much more convincing.
When someone is asked how they will impact the economic miseries of the day, how they will substantially alter the course of the past eight years, I don’t want Reaganisms, unending assurances that “I go across the aisle,” or again, the blanket bombshell that “I know what I’m doing, just vote for me.”
Having attempted to just listen to the candidates, I tried to delineate ideas that could have been a little more concrete, but, alas, the nature of the beast prevented me from doing so. Debates present amorphous blobs of thought — not concretized symbols — for the sole purpose of saving one’s own ass. When you get too specific, make to many stump speech promises, you suddenly are accountable for them. John McCain ultimately dodged that fix altogether by just telling you, “Vote for me, my friends. I can do it. I’m not going to outline my super-secret ways or abilities or plans. Just know that I can do it and you’ll just have to trust me and vote me in. Sign that blank check of trust.”
In those vagaries I heard the voice of a very old way of thinking, of the guy who demands your allegiance just because of his senior position. Respect your elders and vote for me. His shtick was tired, out of breath, filled with the shoddy assurances of more “slam dunk” stipulated with nonsense about “you’ll just have to buy into what I’m selling.” Am I partisan? Am I biased? Maybe I am, but I just can’t see how someone could walk away from tonight’s debate thinking McCain is anything other than a continuation of the secretive, cloistered standard set by the Bush Administration.
It almost doesn’t matter who said what during this debate – and neither man said anything particularly earth-shattering, or anything we haven’t heard a number of times before. Â That’s the nature of a “town hall” debate (though this one hardly qualified as an exemplar of the form); it’s not the substance of what’s said that is important, it’s the “emotional literacy” each candidate shows in making eye contact with audience, speaking with empathy, and authority.Â Guess what? Both candidates did just fine on that score last night.
What was extraordinary to me was the disconnect between the congenial (if combative) tone of John McCain last night, and the deplorable behavior of the McCain campaign over the past four days. Â And what stood out even more was the distance between the well-mannered and engaged (if not exactly “thoughtful”) audience and the rabid packs of jackals that have populated McCain-Palin events in recent days. Â Watching these people froth at the mouth lately, one half expects McCain staffers to be handing out torches and pitchforks at the exits.
Senator McCain, you can’t have this both ways. Â You stood on a stage tonight and heartily shook Senator Obama’s hand, and then you engaged him as an equal for 90 minutes before embracing him at the finish. Â Will you and your campaign turn around tomorrow and, once again, cynically attempt to trick the American people into believing that Obama is a terrorist sympathizer, or in any way un- or anti-American? Â Are you under the impression, after 75 million of us have watched Obama on numerous occasions behave in an entirely presidential way – a hell of a lot more presidential than you, by the way — that anyone besides the most despicable racist is going to be swayed by this William Ayers bullshit? Â When you trot it out again – and I’m quite certain you will, because that is what Republicans do – the electorate will see right through you, just as they have seen through your repeated, transparent attempts to change the subject away from your political weaknesses over the past several months.
Last night, we saw two (relatively) respectful politicians go after each other on policy positions and priorities. Today, only one of these guys is going to be even vaguely respectful toward either his opponent or the intelligence of the American people. Â There’s another month left to this campaign, and at this rate it’s going to feel like a decade. Last night, McCain lost one more chance to change the game or reverse Obama’s momentum. Next week’s debate is his last opportunity to do that before a large audience, and I imagine that that debate will feature all the same talking points on the economy.
So what’s left for McCain? Â Desperation and a continued harping on dishonest trash, or an honorable attempt to turn things around on the merits of his ideas? Â The latter path probably won’t win him the election at this point, but for a guy who desperately wanted to hold a series of town hall debates this summer, and who insisted this spring that he’d run a clean campaign, that path might send him back to the Senate with his reputation restored. The former path probably won’t win him the election, either, and it seems almost certain to send Obama into the White House with a healthy segment of the populace brainwashed into imagining him a fifth-columnist with hostile intentions toward the very nation he’s running. Â Is that really what McCain wants for the nation he purports to love?
Last night, the 90 minute debate between Barack Obama and John McCain demonstrated a few things about politicians:
1. They can talk and talk and talk until you wish they would shut the hell up.
2. Even though these campaigns work out supposedly strict rules about the debates, these politicians donâ€™t care about breaking them.
3. Itâ€™s too bad we canâ€™t bottle the hot air coming out of the mouths of politicians and turn it in to energy. If we could, there wouldnâ€™t be an energy crisis.
Tom Brokaw must have been part of the debate negotiations because he was visibly annoyed by the constant â€œrule brakingâ€ last night, and I grew annoyed at Tomâ€™s short-sighted role as a moderator. The guy clearly needs to exit the national stage and save whatever journalistic cred he has left because last night he seemed like a baffled curmudgeon.
The audience (aka, the â€œTown Hallâ€) was stocked with lobotomized people whose questions, at times, were just as vacant.Â This debate format is supposed to show how candidates react to questions from real people, but whatâ€™s a candidate — who wants the votes of these real people — supposed to say when a question like this is asked: â€œHow can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got us into this global economic crisis?â€
Well, you can highlight that itâ€™s not solely a political problem and demonstrate the role the financial sector played in this crisis.Â However, the best answer is to say: â€œIf you think that neither party can be trusted, than thereâ€™s nothing my opponent or I can say that will lead you to trust us — so vote for the person you think you can trust.â€Â In other words, itâ€™s a wasted question, and only served as an opportunity for the candidates to dovetail into their talking points. To wit:Â Obama blames McCain for voting for the Bush budgets, McCain says go to the National Taxpayers Union to see that Obama is a tax and spend liberal. Obama says that McCain tax cuts go to corporations and the wealthy, McCain says that Obama is going to raise taxes on small businesses. And on and on it went for 90 minutes …
However, one part of the debate that had some substance was the issue of health care.Â For Obama, he made it clear that under his plan individuals could choose what insurance they want (i.e., government or â€œthe plan you haveâ€).Â He also claims heâ€™s going to work with insurance carriers to lower health premiums, administrative costs, and offer a 50% tax credit for small businesses.
McCain was a little more vague.Â He spoke about walk-in clinics, getting your health records on the Internet, and, of course, the $5000 tax credit to purchase your own insurance in whatever state has a plan thatâ€™s â€œright for youâ€ (i.e., what you can afford). Because of the time limits on each candidate, most of what they said was packaged for TV, so it was naturally short on substance.Â But, as candidates are fond of saying: â€œYou can find out more on my websiteâ€ if youâ€™re interested in McCain and Obamaâ€™s health care plans.
Itâ€™s surprising to me that nuclear energy is getting a big boost from both candidates, and it makes me wonder how much nuclear energy PACs are giving to each campaign.Â I went over to Open Secrets to see if they had any information, and it wasnâ€™t too explicit.Â Obama is getting a good chunk of cash from General Electric, which has interests in nuclear power, but McCain?Â Most of his top donors are financial institutions that are benefiting from the bailout (or rescue plan). Itâ€™s tough to tell, upon a cursory glance, how deep each candidate is in the pocket of the nuclear energy interests, but both are doing a real sales job on trying to show how safe, clean and wonderful nuclear energy is — and it makes me suspicious.
The tussle over military issues is one where I think McCain is becoming increasingly vague the more he talks about it. There were times in the debate where he started to say something of substance, but then veered off into slogans that were empty (i.e., â€œIâ€™ll bring the soldiers back with victory and honorâ€).Â There was that whole thing about preconditions, having a cool hand at â€œthe tiller,â€ and an obsession with never being humiliated again that was shoehorned into his answers.Â However, when he uttered those phrases, it seemed like there was someone pressing a button somewhere signaling it was time to talk to the base.
On Iran, Israel, and Russia, it seems both candidates are on the same page — with minor differences.Â But Obama is right to note that diplomatic engagement with those we deem hostile to our interests is better than Bushâ€™s policy of threats (i.e., Axis of Evil), cessation of relations, and regime change through military means. And McCain is right about applying more pressure on Iran to decrease nuclear development — even if that means sanctions. Moreover, even though McCain didnâ€™t admit it in the debate, he agrees with Obama that diplomatic engagement is also key in decreasing hostilities.
In the end, Iâ€™m not sure how much Obama and McCain were able to convince undecided voters (at last count, they were about 7% of the electorate) to vote for one or the other.Â Obama was long-winded at times, and McCain lapsed into petty charges and falsehoods, so perhaps it was McCainâ€™s strategy to keep these voters confused so they would stay home on voting day. If that was the case, he made have made some progress.Â For Obama, he has to tighten up his answers.Â At this point, heâ€™s got to take his best lines and use them in a concise and passionate manner.Â His policies are clearly aimed at the middle class, but he (like Joe Biden) is having a hard time sounding genuine on the economic hardships middle class people are going through.Â Tax cuts sound nice, getting affordable health care is a must, and addressing energy issues is also a priority, but never once did I hear the details on what kind of jobs would be created in the brave new world of nuclear energy. Perhaps thatâ€™s a topic for the next debate, but for the almost 160,000 people who lost their jobs last month, Iâ€™m sure they would like to know now.