Lost in the shuffle of Hillary Clinton’s exist from the campaign ten days ago was a proposal from Senator McCain to Senator Obama to have as many as 10 town hall meetings before Labor Day. Let me explain.
Debates, as we have known them since Kennedy and Nixon, the most famous of all television debates, and of course the first, have taken a turn for the worse over the years. Incumbents, like Nixon and Johnson, ran away from them since they held big leads. When we have had debates they have generally been all about "not making a huge mistake" or looking ridiculous. (Remember Al Gore looking imposing and making foreign policy mistakes when this was supposed to be his strength and George W. Bush looking at his watch?) These "debates" have become sheer spectacle, or bad theater, and little comes out of them that is truly helpful in assessing the character and views of the two candidates. And they are so worked over by both campaigns in the planning stage, and thus so many compromises go into the outcome, that they end up as staged and almost useless events.
But the town hall meeting is different, at least if the common format is followed.
McCain suggests a simple format. Candidates would talk directly to each other and members of the audience could ask direct questions. The dialog in this setting is often fresh and the exchanges are pointed and strikingly revealing. And if there are a number of these events then the chances of one gaffe messing up a candidate’s chances are slim. We would likely see the real beliefs of the two men come out, expressed in their own words and without a teleprompter or note cards.
We are being told that Obama is not excited about this idea. The reasons seem obvious. He is a marvelous speaker but when he is removed from his script things are very different. McCain is just the opposite. He is much better impromptu and not that great an orator. In the end, this may kill the deal but I hope not. I think this simple idea is a win-win, not so much for the two candidates as for us, the people. We deserve to see these two men side-by-side answering questions, laying out their vision for us as a people, and being genuinely impromptu. David Broder, in his Washington Post syndicated column this last week said that the debate format, as we know i now, is stale. It needs a real face lift. This town hall approach provides an opportunity for that to happen. I agree.
I have believed that Barack Obama is truly a "new" kind of candidate.
I think his response to this challenge will allow us to see if he really means it. He is very bright, truly thoughtful and obviously capable. I hope he overrides his advisers views on the ups and downs of this challenge and agrees to McCain’s excellent idea. I think we the people would be the real winners in such a venue.
By the way, the counter-proposal (by the Obama campaign) of a Lincoln-Douglas style debate format is genuinely ridiculous. Lincoln and Douglas stood and spoke for 90 minutes each, going from town to town across Illinois. These events lasted for hours and hours. People basically camped out for the day. No way this would work on modern television and Obama obviously knows it. If he stands by this idea the whole proposal for serious dialog will fall flat. Let us then hope the pressure mounts to accept McCain’s idea and thus it will be taken seriously. The Obama campaign says it is weighing this proposal. I genuinely think the people might want this to happen enough that the Obama campaign will have to agree. I would watch as many of these as possible with rapt interest.