As Jack Shafer put it, last night’s town hall debate was neither. It wasn’t a town hall event because the questions from the audience could not have been more scripted or more boring. It wasn't a debate in that there was little chance for the two Presidential candidates to talk to each other—aside from John McCain’s clipped interruptions and Barack Obama’s pleading for rebuttals. The venerable Tom Brokaw seemed to carry the most momentum. Unfortunately it didn’t carry the debate into any relevant pastures. All three men and the audience were their own islands.
Two weeks ago, the consensus was that Obama won the first debate by drawing a tie. This time around, Obama won by winning. Since both men are very skilled politicians and debaters, neither one is going to wipe the floor with the other. But Obama came out tough and held on to his talking points which, stride for stride, poll better than McCain’s. Obama knew the price of gas in Nashville, linked his alternative energy plan with JFK’s call to put a man on the moon, and repeated the enormously effective “his hatchet vs. my scalpel” rebuttal to McCain’s call for a spending freeze.
But Obama’s continued support of domestic drilling and clean coal are blatant politicking overtures to the vast political center of the American public. And toward the end of the debate, Obama argued that in order to take on Russia we need to send cash over to Eastern European countries to shore up their economies—Mr. Obama, where will this money come from?
By this point, McCain and Obama know each other’s talking points so well this debate seemed more like a round of contract bridge—where you play the same hands over and over. Nuclear energy. Earmarks. Tax cuts for those making $42,000 a year. Wrong on Iraq. Same hand, different order. But the loser in John McCain’s hand is his attitude. He was dismissive of Obama—referring to him once as “that one”—and the audience: McCain told a young man he probably didn’t know what Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were before this crisis. As if this young man didn’t have student loans or friends with student loans. This point isn’t being brought up too much, and that’s a shame. (Obama made his own sweeping generalization when he said most people in the audience probably had healthcare.) It doesn’t matter that the young questioner was African American. What matters is that McCain’s disdain for Obama—“he doesn’t understand,” “he doesn’t understand”—spilled over into disdain for his audience (specifically his young audience).
Both candidates ignored questions—though in the case of asinine questions this was a relief—and ignored each other, for the most part. McCain has very little gas left his tank, and this debate looked like one of his last gasps. Give him credit for not harping over Ayers or Rezko (though I’m sure that won’t last).
The town-hall-debate-that-was-neither was a win for Obama because the Democratic nominee simply has the better policies and temperament. He proved both arguments last night, to little effect.