10/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Oxford Debates the Debates

Here in Oxford we're as confused as anybody, maybe more so since as I write, at nine Thursday evening, we don't know if the presidential debate scheduled to begin here in 24 hours will even take place. John McCain says he's got to stay in Washington to save the economy. They're not buying that in Oxford.

Like the rest of the country, they're angry, hopeful, skeptical, anxious, afraid -- sometimes all at once. Just the other day President Bush and John McCain were telling us the economy was sound. Then last night, the president told the nation that "our entire economy is in danger," that "the American people could slip into a financial panic." Well, which is it? Do we need a $700 billion bailout or not? Should we panic or go shopping, as Bush advised us to do after 9/11? What's this $700 billion going to do for us? Where does the figure come from? Why not $500 billion? Why not a trillion? Or more?

The people who live and work in this country, who buy houses and watch their value sink below the amount of their mortgage, the people who actually do the work that makes this economy work -- they don't know what to do or think. What's more, they're not at all sure that our leaders do, either, or that the people who make up the Congress and the Administration who got us into this mess have any idea how to get us out of it. To add to the confusion, Bill Clinton hasn't wasted a chance to praise the presidential candidate of the other party -- until this afternoon when he remembered that he's a Democrat and praised his party's candidate effusively.

Joel Miller is a 33-year-old small businessman here in Oxford and he is fed up. He describes himself as neither a Democrat nor a Republican but a combination of a sometime Democrat and a Libertarian. He may live far outside the Beltway, but he's figured out how things work inside it. "The big guys who gave the most money to the politicians are going to reap the rewards of this bailout."

Can you argue with that? I can't.

"I haven't heard one person in Mississippi say the bailout is a good idea," Joel said. "Half of me says, Let the moneylenders in the New York temples fail. Why are we giving billions to the AIGs and these businesses that failed? Why can't we just temporarily help people readjust their mortgages so they can stay in their homes?"

But instead, Joel says, "Here we go again -- more Bush secrecy, no questions asked. 'Give me the money and let me do it my way.' Are they daring us again?"

You may think that Joel is a Democrat who doesn't want to say he's a Democrat. He's not. A couple of years ago he says he probably would have voted for McCain, "before McCain turned out to be like all the other politicians." Today, he's not so sure. In 2004 he didn't vote, not because he was just another apathetic non-voter but because he didn't like the way things were going on either side of the aisle. Joel knows the issues; he doesn't like the choices.

About the $700 billion, both Obama and McCain "are pretty much sitting on the fence. I haven't heard their specifics. Obama is still too vague and McCain finally said there's a problem in our economy. Mind you, McCain only reached that conclusion after his aides put his choke collar back on."

Joel is a chef and his wife Cori is a specialized medical technician. They own a restaurant and a small inn. They are the kind of people that we used to think -- and I still do think -- made this country great. "I don't expect medicare or social security for us," Joel says. "No way. We're young and we have good skills. We'll be okay, even in a bad and long recession, but I worry about the 55-year-old guy who's worked one or two jobs for thirty years and has little savings and is thrown out of a job because of these greedy moneylenders." Joel and Cori believe in themselves but they no longer believe in our government or our leaders in Washington. That is very bad news for Washington.

If this debate doesn't go off as scheduled, that will be bad news for Washington, too. The people of Oxford are already mad. They'll be madder. The town and the university have spent some $5.5 million and worked for a year to make sure tomorrow's debate runs as smoothly as they can make it run.

Barack Obama says he'll be here. Jim Lehrer, the moderator, is already here. The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsors and produces the whole thing, says it's a go. So, what's the next move? Stay tuned.