Tom Brokaw had it right tonight. As Obama and McCain walked onstage in Nashville for their second debate of the campaign, the mood of the country had changed tremendously since their first encounter on September 26. The Dow plunged over 500 points today and the index is closer to 9000 than 10,000; people are concerned about the economy in ways that they haven’t since the Great Depression and voters especially are anxious for answers out of these somewhat desperate times. As a result, there was a somber feel to this evening’s affair given the crisis; a distinct pallor or dark cloud seemed to hang over the heads of the two candidates.
The format was a town hall meeting. Undecided voters were on stage ready with their questions, along with others that were e-mailed from around the country. All this would allow a more natural flow of information, perhaps, and something a bit more personal and folksy. We as viewers could see a candidate connect seamlessly to this format, as Bill Clinton did in 1992, when he would say “I feel your pain”. But we could also see how a candidate would be undone as well, as when George H.W. Bush in the same debate, was caught momentarily looking at his watch, as if he’d rather be somewhere else. This format should have suited McCain on this night, as he had done many of these kinds of “meetings” during this campaign and at one point over the summer challenged Obama to a series of town hall debates, perhaps because he liked the folksier (as opposed to formal question) format. McCain assumed that he could use his “Straight Talk Express” as a way to connect with the American people.
The “debate” in Nashville tonight was actually rather boring. Here was a format that was decidedly set up to allow each candidate to answer a question for two minutes, follow up for one, if needed, but really not allow them to expound beyond their own rehearsed answer. Hence this was all calculated for caution’s sake, a measured affair in which no one was going to truly go out there and deliver a ‘gotcha’ or as the media now has called it (ridiculously), a “game-changing” moment. Obama knew that if he simply went out there and delivered his stump responses and engage McCain slightly, he would come out ahead –and he did. McCain certainly liked the fact that there were strict time limits to the responses: you didn’t have an opportunity to say much more than what you’ve been saying for the past several months. He did this too, but to lesser success only because he seemed more prickly and uncomfortable when speaking at times and certainly when Obama had the microphone. That lent an uncomfortable air to the proceedings in general.
My question is this: is the town hall meeting format destined for oblivion? Are we as voters really getting the information we need from the candidates in this way? Doesn’t the format, in which voters are sitting in the audience and the candidates on stools, actually inhibit what a “debate” really means? I think the answer is an unqualified “yes” because of all the imposed time limits on responses and the awkward pacing that forces the candidate to literally have to truncate what they say and move on to the next question. But what do the candidates’ handlers think? This is a risk-averse situation, for sure. Which candidate would want to have the “game changer” moment, the headline-grabbing sound bite, in a format that did not necessarily lend itself to it? More importantly, with 30 days to go before the election, who would want to do something dramatic or edgy if one didn’t have to? The handlers of both candidates knew this. All Obama really had to do was show up, and McCain as well, and launch into their familiar speak. Obama used the same three step solutions for fixing the economy as he did in debate #1. McCain spoke most animatedly about foreign policy and tried again to paint Obama as a neophyte. So what was new tonight, relatively speaking?
The contrast on stage was one of physicality. Obama portrayed a tall, vibrant man who stood effortlessly and walked gently to approach the person in the audience who was asking questions. (No shaking or holding of hands, a la Clinton). His responses were mostly articulate and well-thought out, intelligent and measured. He was not quite warmth personified and at one moment seemed a bit forced when he quickly thanked the Iraq War veteran “for his service to our country” whereas McCain actually seemed more genuine. But McCain also seemed lumbering, walking almost aimlessly around the stage, as if he was aggravated by a host of things, not the least of which was his opponent. He showed his age, quite simply. His responses at times seemed awkward and hasty. They sparred on taxes. They sparred on the economic crisis. While Obama delivered his responses with crisp aplomb, McCain too often resorted to some irritable jabs or stabs at humor. The line about “nailing Jello to a wall” was odd because, well, it didn’t stick and this must be the first time a line about hair transplant (his own) appeared in a presidential debate. Finally, it seemed that Obama was more at ease, eager to respond and always looking at McCain as he spoke. One might even say fixated, and managing a smile as if he knows what to say next. This is a contrast to even the last debate –and this one too—in which McCain could not be bothered to look at Obama. Someone is clearly bothered here, and it does not translate well on TV.
Much will be written, for instance, of the unfortunate line that McCain used tonight –the phrase “That one”—when referring to a pork-laden energy bill that he said Obama wrongly voted for. It was a bizarre line, showing a patronizing and condescending side to McCain that we knew was always there, but up to now, did not reveal its face so publicly in this kind of forum. If his opponent had been a female, ‘that one’ would have smacked of sexism. Because Obama is Black, this could have a more racial overtone, but the fact of the matter is that McCain simply sought to portray Obama as inexperienced and unschooled. I guess “this guy” would have been preferable to “that one”, but that too would have sounded too casual. Something simply erupted inside of him –perhaps his own fatigue and impatience—and it didn’t sound (or look) pretty by the end of the debate.
His solace came at the end, when after shaking the hand of the retired Chief Petty Naval Officer Terry Shirey, he gave a strong and impassioned closing statement (“I believe in this country. I believe in its future.”) that served as a coda of sorts for his campaign. But, just when you thought you heard (and saw) eloquence from McCain, what did he do? He walks right into the camera, inside Tom Brokaw’s sightline, as he awkwardly shakes Obama’s hand, blocks the teleprompter and ambles around the stage to acknowledge the applause and greet his wife, Cindy. Tellingly, McCain did not shake Obama’s hand again later, instead giving him a pat on the back. Then, Mrs. McCain did not greet Mrs. Obama, though she did shake Obama’s hand quickly. Then the McCains seemed to leave the stage rather suddenly while the Obamas, again Clinton-style, lingered around and shook hands with voters who were there on stage. That McCain could not stick around, for at least the 5-10 or so minutes when the cameras themselves are still there, was readily apparent.
There was some substance tonight, and even something relatively new –McCain’s plan to have the Treasury Department spend billions to buy or restructure homeowners’ mortgages—but the town hall debate was a bit of wash. What we heard was familiar, especially to those who have been following both Obama’s and McCain’s stump speeches. Just when the McCain camp in particular has been launching smear attacks in the last few days, this was not going to be the venue for such desperate or “Hail Mary” acts. When happy pit bull Sarah Palin can walk up to Jacksonville, FLA crowd and rile them up with a proto-racist line like “Barack Obama is not one of us”, or imply that he is a “US terrorist” because he knew Bill Ayers, or because he knew the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, this is a campaign that seeks distraction above all else. Palin is enjoying this. She’ll even let her hair down. But this kind of talk was nowhere to be found in Nashville: no mention of Ayers, no mention of Charles Keating, which is the Obama campaign response to the McCain mudslinging.
This doesn’t mean that, come Wednesday morning, things won’t return to normal, especially as McCain won’t get much of a bump from tonight. The poll numbers are grim for McCain, about 5 to 8 points behind. McCain packed up and left Michigan in an ill-advised move last week, something unheard of (do it, but don’t announce it) this close to the election, and we have the possibility that some states that went for Bush in 2004 may now swing to Obama. Indiana going to the Democrats? That’s a real possibility, and it hasn’t happened since Walter Mondale won it in 1984. The electoral map is moving towards Obama, and that’s very significant. As we sail towards the final debate next week at Hofstra University, put your seatbelts and overcoats on because the mud will continue to be slung fast and furious.
Winner: Obama, very decisively, 2-0.