Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mr. Cool vs. the Prowler

By Sharon Dooley.

Tuesday's debate featured Senators Barack Obama and John McCain in a so-called Town Hall Meeting. This event was far more structured than the ones in previous years, as the moderator, Tom Brokaw, screened all questions and questioners in advance. He determined the order of the questions and chose who was to answer first on each one. Internet viewers also sent in a few questions. Politico's John Harris has called it the "worst debate ever"; while I am not certain I would echo that label, it was odd – a debate that had no interactions between the two candidates. Although this was supposed to be the realm in which McCain was most comfortable, he frequently seemed anxious for it to end. As the debate went on, the body language of the two candidates seemed to say a lot. Obama appeared relaxed and comfortable with the format; McCain prowled the stage, frequently charging toward the seated audience and rarely smiled.

As for content, there was little new that was said or learned as the candidates kept to the standard lines they have been expressing on the stump. The questions were not exactly breaking new ground, either, as the few chosen topics were along familiar subjects such as the economy, taxes and health care. McCain came out with an initiative about home mortgage assistance that was poorly described and not adequately explored. Both candidates were being careful to speak with cautious, measured words that would not make negative headlines the next day. There was also some discussion about Russia and other foreign policy areas as well as energy sources and options for the future. One of Obama's best moments came when he discussed health care and the problems his dying mother had experienced with insurance companies. McCain did appear more confident when he answered questions about foreign affairs

Tom Brokaw did not encourage discussion, follow-up questions or answers between the candidates and was flexible about the allotted times for answers, which sometimes led to confusion. (Much of this was attributed to the draconian rules that were extensively negotiated by the campaigns' pre-debate teams.) The lack of follow-up questions and inability to query previous statements made much of the spontaneity and exchange of ideas, usually seen in such forums, impossible. Brokaw did get some interesting responses to his question about health care asking if it was a responsibility, a privilege or a right. McCain asserted that it was a responsibility that the government held; Obama stated that it was a right that should be fulfilled for all. This again shows the differences in long- range philosophies between the two. In a strange conversation, when asked who his candidates for Treasury Secretary might be, McCain first said, "Well, not you Tom!" to the moderator, who would indeed have been an odd selection. Neither candidate voiced a firm solution for the financial recovery of the nation, nor for the looming problem of entitlements, which were mentioned but not addressed in any depth.

Again in this outing as before, McCain did not show respect for his opponent, once pointing and referring to him derisively as "that one". He rarely looked at him. He again tried to make it seem that Barack Obama was not ready to assume the office of the Presidency, when the viewer saw much the opposite in tone and manner. In his attempt to appear forceful and decisive, McCain actually acted out the role of the underdog, and instead appeared to be grumpy and angry. Planned jokes fell flat; McCain's' own laughter seemed forced. The Washington Post called this a better performance by McCain and it was, by a bit – but his best was not good enough. This debate was not a draw in any aspect. Repetitive uses of his talisman phrase - "my friends" -seemed almost pejorative near the end of the time when he did not appear at all friendly. John McCain's' best moment came at the end when a fellow Navy veteran asked a question – he related, touched the man's shoulder and shook his hand, making that human connection that had eluded him all evening. Barack was at his most relaxed when asked a Zen like question about his faults near the end of the evening and laughingly indicated that his wife – who was in the audience - was probably the best source for that information. After the debate ended, their wives joined the candidates on stage. John and Cindy McCain briefly greeted Barack Obama and some in the audience then left abruptly. Barack and Michelle Obama stayed and talked at length with members of the studio audience.

What was leaned from this evening? Well, the pundits have spoken and given the evening to Obama. The polled voters, also by a wide margin, selected Obama as the winner. Was any new ground broken, any new initiative revealed, any major gaffe expressed – no. Did the country get another chance to watch the candidates think and speak on their feet? Yes. Was there an overt appeal to the woman voter – a known swing factor? None were obvious on the surface of the discussions; no particular topic relating to family issues was even asked, so possibly an opportunity was missed. When looking under the words of the stump speeches, were we able to see the candidate beneath the rhetoric? Perhaps. If there were truly any undecided voters out there, would this discussion have been the tipping point for any one? In my opinion, if the undecided voters thought about who looked Presidential, who seemed knowledgeable, who acted as if he could handle any crises with a focused and calm demeanor, the only answer could be Barack Obama.

Is the race going to get ugly - it already has - so hold onto your hats! With every point up in the polls by Obama, the negatives on the stump have increased. NPR announced that in most markets now, McCain is running 100% negative ads. Supposedly they are an effective tool and turn out the base, but they also can turn away independents from the candidate who supports this negativity. We have less than 4 weeks to go and a lot can happen in that time, so while my crystal ball is not currently being consulted, my fingers remain crossed.

Note from Adam: Here's an example of how incredibly ugly this race is getting. We knew some of the GOP faithful was capable of this behavior, but to actually see it is chilling.