The town hall style presidential debate last night in Nashville was supposed to help the candidates connect with the voters, both those on location and those watching on television. But the format didn’t really work that well and there were few highlights in a night devoted largely to the economic crisis. John McCain offered up a plan to bail out homeowners while Barack Obama declared health care a “right.” To the surprise of some, McCain did not use personal attacks against Obama, as many observers thought he might.
It was more like a 15-round heavyweight fight with the candidates just trying to make it to the final round without getting knocked out. Neither man scored a major blow and the debate didn’t seem to change the dynamic of the race, according to four local experts. With Obama leading in national polls and in key battleground states, that is not good news for McCain.
MinnPost asked four local professors to provide their assessment:
Adrienne Christiansen, associate professor of political science at Macalester College in St. Paul: “I found this not a debate, but a dreary recapitulation of both campaigns’ talking points. Both candidates played it safe because we are so close to the actual election and they dared not risk saying anything too controversial, new, or that might be turned into a ‘game changing’ gaffe.
“Americans paying attention to the campaign during the last two years, even the last six months, will find little that has not already been said by the candidates. Obama held his own but did not excel in this format. McCain seemed considerably more comfortable in this type of speaking context. To my eye and ear, the town hall format seems contrived and no debate at all. Someone who fell asleep during the ‘debate’ and woke up might say, ‘Oh dear, what did I miss?’ Answer: Precious little.
“Both candidates met expectations in terms of style. I expected McCain to take potshots at Obama and build on his campaign’s recent open admission that the Republicans were going to ‘go negative.’ I was surprised by this open admission, which reflects that the McCain campaign is losing ground and getting no traction on their policy points. I have a higher minimum threshold for policy discussions than many Americans, and on this level, I was disappointed by both candidates.
“There were no highlights. The lowlights concerned McCain’s dismissive and rude reference to Obama as ‘that one’ — denying respectful consideration of a fellow Senate colleague or even Obama’s humanity. I predict that McCain is going to regret this quip in the coming days. McCain’s efforts at humor (relating to treatments for baldness and ‘nailing Jello to a wall’) reflects the jovial, ‘just folks’ colloquialisms that the Republican ticket is regularly relying upon these days.
“Like Sarah Palin, McCain is trying to divide Americans into the resentful and the resented — supposedly ‘normal’ Americans versus ‘abnormal,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘intellectual,’ and ‘exotic’ Americans. That he would do so in the midst of one of this country’s and the world’s most economically challenging times speaks volumes about his own (and his running mate’s) limitations on economic matters.
“McCain needed to do something in the town hall forum to ‘move the needle’ and stop the slide in his poll numbers. He did not accomplish that last night. Obama needed only to ‘hold on,’ and he did. The town hall forum was neither compelling politics nor ‘must see TV.’
“Many of my students who watched this debate were bored and irritated. They complained vigorously about both candidates’ refusal to answer questions and to rely on pat campaign slogans. They want this long, long election to be over. It’s hard not to agree with them.”
Angela High-Pippert, associate professor of political science and director of women’s studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul: “Undecided voters who watched the first presidential debate did not learn much more about either candidate from this one. Whether behind a podium or perched on a stool, the candidates’ presentations of self were consistent across the two debates, with McCain coming across as more confrontational and Obama as less so.
“This town hall meeting format (with apologies to actual town hall meetings) did allow television viewers to witness both Obama and McCain connecting with particular undecided voters, identified by name, and both candidates were respectful of the person asking the question, even if they did not always answer that question directly.
“The debate focused on domestic and foreign policy, as it should have, although some pre-debate coverage of the increased negativity of the campaign and the ‘gloves coming off’ raised expectations that we might see some attacks on character in addition to attacks on record. Both the first and second debate began with a focus on the economy, which accentuated the repetitive nature of many of the candidates’ responses to questions, often right down to exact use of language in both debates. (Obama said, ‘A final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, promoted by George Bush, and supported by Senator McCain.’)
“In this time of economic uncertainty, people want a plausible explanation as to how this crisis began and what can be done to contain it. They want specifics, not vague statements about Fannie and Freddie and special interests and predatory lenders, and the overused ‘Wall Street’ and ‘Main Street’ framework. The candidates did not deliver much in the way of specifics, although McCain did add a new item to the agenda with his proposal to have the government renegotiate mortgages.
“In terms of defense policy, this debate followed the first by also focusing on Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia, although there was a thoughtful question about Pakistan which allowed McCain to name-drop General Petraeus while Obama chose to name-drop Osama bin Laden.
“The takeaway message of domestic policy might be that when moderator Tom Brokaw asked for a rank ordering of three particular issues (health care, energy, Social Security and Medicare), Obama prioritized energy, then health care, followed by education. McCain’s answer was that we could do all three at once.
“Overall, the most lively moments in the debate were when Brokaw actually tried to moderate, and remind the candidates that they had agreed to the rules of this debate and needed to follow the time restrictions. Otherwise, the debate seemed to reinforce that the fate of both candidates is more closely tied to external events rather than campaign events.”
John F. Cragan, distinguished service professor in communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas: “McCain avoided the highly personal attacks on Obama that have recently appeared on the campaign trail as well as in political ads. In fact, he chose to engage the economic issues with a new policy proposal — the federal buyout and restructuring of home mortgages.
“On foreign policy issues, McCain staked his election on experience and judgment. He ended the debate on a high note, drawing upon his long, personal sacrifices for the country, both as a veteran and as a senator.
“McCain’s handling of the economic issues and his general temperament during the first portion of the debate was uneven. He seemed somewhat erratic and too intense when contrasted with the cool, calm demeanor of Obama. The time limits of the debate format did not allow him to explain his new home mortgage proposal which could make a difference as the campaign proceeds. Given the national poll numbers, which show Obama in the lead, McCain needed to score a clear victory. He did not accomplish this goal.
“Obama spoke directly to his audience on economic issues in a clear and persuasive way. His prioritizing of energy independence as an issue that Americans could come together and jointly sacrifice for was his most persuasive moment. He also clearly identified health care as a right of all Americans which stood in contrast to McCain’s answer of health care as a responsibility.
“Obama continued identifying McCain with the unpopular Bush administration. Obama’s answers to foreign policy questions were not as eloquent as his responses to economic inquiries. In fact, he stumbled at times in explaining his position on attacking Bin Laden inside of Pakistan without Pakistan’s approval. Overall, Obama only needed this debate to be a draw. He probably exceeded this goal.”
Kathryn Pearson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota: “A recent Gallup Poll reveals that 69 percent of voters indicate that economic problems are ‘the most important problem’ and only 9 percent are ‘satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.’ Moderator Tom Brokaw began the debate by highlighting the economic crisis. The candidates’ behavior, the questions from the audience, and voters’ reactions reflected the serious economic anxiety in America.
“Neither candidate provided the specifics on the economy that the questioners or Brokaw asked for, yet they were responsive and detailed enough to make clear the differences between them. The candidates leveled so many attacks against the other that it was difficult to know who was telling the truth about raising attention to the economic crisis and voting for tax and spending cuts and increases.
“Obama’s responses typically contained a mix of criticisms leveled against McCain and his general ideas about how to help the economy. In his first answer, he immediately linked McCain to the ‘failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush.’ He also criticized CEOs, detailed his tax plan, and discussed health care and energy at some length. In turn, McCain’s responses were also a mix of attacks and his own ideas. He started his discussion of economic policy by discussing energy, but the ‘news’ of the night from the McCain campaign was his promise to ‘order the secretary of the treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes — at the diminished value of those homes.’
“Both candidates missed an opportunity to inspire Americans and demonstrate leadership with their responses to the question from 78-year-old Fiora from Chicago, who asked: ‘Since World War II, we have never been asked to sacrifice anything to help our country, except the blood of our heroic men and women. As president, what sacrifices — sacrifices will you ask every American to make to help restore the American dream and to get out of the economic morass that we’re now in?’
“McCain’s answer was strikingly weak. He delved into a wonkish and uninspiring discussion of reducing the federal bureaucracy, earmarks and government spending, and then shifted back to health care. Obama, as usual, started with a criticism of the Bush administration, but then shifted to a discussion of how individuals can reduce energy in their own lives and expanding opportunities for volunteering.
“At a time of such serious national concern over the economy, neither candidate offered inspiration or discussed the solutions that may be necessary in the years ahead. At the same time, neither committed any serious gaffes or missteps. This debate is hardly a game-changer in the campaign, but instead a reminder of the importance of the economy in this election and national life.”
Doug Stone is a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. He writes on national and international affairs.