Special Debate Edition
In a forum on a college stage in Nashville, Tenn., Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain faced off for a second time before the television cameras, fielding questions on the economy, energy and foreign policy from an audience selected largely for its members' self-description as "undecided voters."
The discussion included plenty of policy, but will likely be more remembered for a moment when McCain pointed his finger at Obama than for anything either man said.
You said you wanted substance in the presidential campaign? If you watched last night's "town hall," or debate or whatever it was, you surely got some, though not in a particularly energizing setting. As Liliana Segura, writing for AlterNet, sees it:
The first problem with this debate was calling it a debate. The second was calling it a "town hall." In the strange, stilted ritual atop the red carpet at Nashville's Belmont University, the studio audience looked less like an inquisitive cross-section of the American public than it did a cast of apolitical drones programmed to deliver canned questions in exchange for canned lines.
David Corn of Mother Jones described it this way:
For an evening billed as The Night McCain Attacks, Obama landed as many blows as did McCain. Neither took any wild swings. But Obama, leading in the polls nationally and within swing states, didn't have to. He is going smooth and steady. He was practically cruising in this debate--slow and calm. He exuded confidence. McCain was no slouch. He just couldn't overcome a high-performing foe.
Okay, but who won? Not surprisingly, perhaps, writers for progressive news outlets saw Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, as the clear winner. But so did a CBS poll. And a CNN poll. As Laura Rozen of War and Piece explains, "CBS poll of 500 uncommitted voters: 40% said Obama won, 26% said McCain, 34% thought it was a draw...A CNN debate poll found 54% said Obama did the best job, 30% said McCain did."
By significant margins, respondents to the CNN poll found Obama to be more likable (65 percent to 28 percent for McCain) and more intelligent (57 percent to McCain's 25 percent).
That likability thing: Perhaps that's where that finger-pointing moment comes into play. While making an accusation about Obama's voting record on the controversial Bush energy bill, McCain asked, rhetorically, " You know who voted for it? You might never know." He pointed he finger at Obama and, answering his own question, said, "That one."
Sure got my attention. In one fell swoop, McCain not only pointed his finger angrily at his opponent, but chose to refer to a black man in a way that omitted any reference to his humanity. Even if that was not his intention, it was not a particularly deft move.
The general sense around the progressive blogosphere was that the "That one" comment wasn't coming from a racist place. Ezra Klein, writing at his blog on The American Prospect site, called it "tone deaf". "It's Grandpa Simpson," Klein writes. Mother Jones' Jonathan Stein heard a certain derision that was not race-based, in his view: "I, for one, read no racism into the comment. Condescension, yes. Racism, no."
Though not seeing racism in the swipe, The Nation's John Nichols did see it as a deliberate word choice:
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?"
But is McCain's tone-deafness in racially sensitive situations indicative of a lack of understanding of our increasingly diverse culture? Joan Walsh of Salon observed McCain's interaction with Oliver Clark, the second audience member to question the candidates:
Barack Obama dominated this debate from the very first question John McCain fielded directly, when he condescended to the African-American questioner, a young man named Oliver, who asked how the $700 billion rescue plan passed last week would help the average American. McCain first implied that Oliver and other regular voters wouldn't know that much about Fannie Mae and and Freddie Mac... Then McCain told Oliver that his plans would "help Americans like Allen ... stay in their home." Allen? Allen was the nice older white man who asked the first question. So what about Oliver? Did he not matter? Was McCain confused?
And McCain did not acknowledge by name Ingrid Jackson, the African-American woman who asked him how quickly a McCain administration would move to push Congress on green jobs and climate change. Calling questioners by their names is pretty much the unspoken rule of enforcing the false intimacy of the town-hall format.
David Roberts of Grist was taken aback by McCain's answer to Jackson: "Now, how -- what's -- what's the best way of fixing it? Nuclear power. Sen. Obama says that it has to be safe or disposable or something like that."
The transcript doesn't convey it, but this line -- "Sen. Obama says that it has to be safe or disposable or something like that" -- is delivered with a kind of bemused sputter, like he's trying to figure out some peculiar idiosyncrasy of Obama's. High-handedly dismissing safety concerns about nuclear power struck me as jarring and a little bizarre.
Another policy matter that drew a sharp distinction between Obama and McCain was health care. As The Nation's Nichols recounts:
"Quick discussion: Is health care in America a privilege, a right, or a responsibility?" said the NBC newsman. "Senator McCain?"
"I think it's a responsibility," responded the Republican nominee for president.
Brokaw then turned to Obama.
"Well, I think it should be a right for every American," the Democrat declared. "In a country as wealthy as ours, for us to have people who are going bankrupt because they can't pay their medical bills -- for my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they're saying that this may be a pre-existing condition and they don't have to pay her treatment, there's something fundamentally wrong about that."
AlterNet's Segura noted several "eyebrow-raising moments," one on health care,
...when McCain proposed, "Let's put health records online" -- a cunning way to offset his own lack of Internet savvy, perhaps, but a comment that no small number of critics will respond to by saying, "Let's start with yours."
The McCain campaign has only allowed reporters glances at the Republican candidate's health records, in a setting that gave them little time to examine thousands of pages of records, and in which they were forbidden to take notes or make copies.
Several bloggers mentioned moments and attributes that made the 72-year-old McCain come across as elderly in their eyes. Here"s Ezra Klein:
Tonight, even though McCain made no major mistakes, the debate was clearly Obama's. And not only on the merits, though I thought this Obama's best outing on the substance. Rather, it was the visual contrast that proved striking. The constant movement required by the format left McCain looking old and slow and tired. It's not his fault. He moves like a 72-year-old man because he is a 72-year-old man. But that fact was emphasized this evening, and not to McCain's advantage.
Laura Rozen noted McCain's several invocations of Ronald Reagan:
And like one has sometimes with like a great uncle or something, a lack of awareness of how dated and out of touch some of the talking points sound. Does Ronald Reagan still offer the answer to today's economy? (When the US was still manufacturing the world's cars, there weren't really global markets, no China as a trading partner, still a Soviet Union, no 401k plans, or ATM machines, no one except MIT professors had computers, and you made long distance calls to your grandparents once a week?) To listen to McCain, it did.
One topic was notable for its absence, especially because it's a theme that the McCain campaign has been hammering since the weekend -- that of a certain "domestic terrorist" whom Obama knows through his service on the board of a Chicago-based education project. As TPM Election Central's Greg Sargent put it:
As multiple observers have pointed out, McCain needed to jar the electorate into seeing this race in a new way. It isn't even clear if McCain even tried to do this tonight -- there was no moment where he appeared to make an aggressive bid to take down Obama or grab the initiative. McCain did try to hit Obama by saying that the presidency is no time for "on the job training," but the attack was a stale one that we've heard before. There was no mention of the words "William Ayers."
In essence, looking at last night's forum, the guilt-by-association stuff seems all McCain has left to use against Obama, and that was a tack he preferred not to take before the entire television-viewing nation. And so, writes the Washington Independent's Matthew DeLong, McCain probably didn't improve his poll numbers in this outing:
So, how did McCain fare? Overall, it was probably a draw. There wasn't a clear win on either side. Will tonight's performance be shifting the polls tomorrow? Not likely -- and because McCain came into the debate desperately needing a decisive victory, with just one more debate remaining, the lack of one would constitute a defeat.
In that case, chalk up one for That One.
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for a complete list of articles on McCain. And for the best progressive reporting on two
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