Several weeks ago, John McCain extended an invitation to Barack Obama—both candidates would commit to a series of ten town hall meetings, during which each candidate would answer questions from ordinary people. It’s a hard idea to argue with, and the Obama campaign agreed to it, saying that it only needed to work out the details. After thinking the matter over, the Obama campaign came back with their counteroffer—they wanted the three traditional fall debates, a August debate about foreign policy, and one [!] town hall meeting. On the Fourth of July [!!!]. In effect, the Obama campaign shot down the whole idea.
Everyone interested in politics knows that Obama is much better at reading from a TelePrompTer than at thinking on his feet, and that the opposite is true of McCain. But can the Obama campaign possibly really be that concerned about a debate with McCain? Obama must know that his refusal to debate McCain will be seen as weak by many voters—does he think his debating skills are so poor that he simply cannot afford to debate McCain in the loose, unscripted town hall environment?
McCain should hope so. If Obama is as poor a debater as his response indicates, then he will probably trip up at some point in the debating process anyway. And Obama’s refusal to debate should make political hay for McCain, who needs all the good press he can get.
(On the other hand, maybe this won’t be a boost at all. At this point, McCain has no friends in the media—the liberal media find him too conservative, and the conservative media find him too liberal. I’m not sure there is any political commentator who really likes McCain. Possibly, Fox News will give him some favorable coverage, but realistically, cable news is becoming so nakedly partisan that it is hard to take anything said on cable seriously. The cable division seems to be Fox News—conservative; CNN—boring; and MSNBC: liberal and boring).
Even though Obama refused to attend any of McCain’s proposed town halls, McCain went ahead with them anyway. He held his first yesterday; it was televised on Fox News. The questions were pretty standard—how would you achieve bipartisanship as president, what would your Supreme Court look like, how would you improve education; and McCain’s answers weren’t very exciting either—the Democrats would work with me, John Roberts, whatever the typical line on education reform is. It was more interesting than, say, some the Democrat debates, but Obama’s presence would have made it much more exciting.
Watching McCain, it was hard not to notice the contrast with Obama. Obama is tall, athletic (he’s a very good basketball player), young, and speaks in nice, rolling tones. McCain is shorter, awkward (which may actually work in McCain’s favor; it’s hard to forget that his arms were broken by his North Vietnamese torturers), old (though he does look good for his age), and speaks in an annoying monotone. Obama’s image is much, much better, which may explain why he would rather reply on lofty, content free speeches than complicated debates.