McCain's Desperate Debate Gambit

Few controversies of the presidential campaign seem less momentous once they conclude than the traditional “debate over debates.” One campaign pushes for more debates, the other pushes for fewer, and the two perform a ridiculous tango of dudgeon, disappointment, and expectations-gaming. As with so much else in this long, long campaign, the debate over debates has started early this year.

John McCain is pressing Barack Obama to join him for ten town hall-style debates, while the Obama campaign has countered with an offer of five debates, only one of which would be a town hall. But, posturing aside, how much will the debates, and the rest of the campaign, really tell us about the next presidency?

It’s hard to blame the McCain campaign for wanting to turn the race into little but one town hall after another. They seem to have noticed that what’s tickling their ankles is the quicksand of defeat. Desperate for a hanging branch to grab onto, they have seized on the town hall, the forum that has been so good to them for so long. If they could only force their dynamic young opponent with history on his side to come to the place where McCain feels most comfortable, perhaps the GOP nominee could drag himself back to firmer ground.

The kink in this plan is that, for all his masterful speechifying, Barack Obama does fine when interacting with voters. He might not make his audience weep, but he won’t turn them off, either. And while the John McCain who reads a prepared speech is certainly a less pleasant candidate to listen to than the one who conducts a town hall, it isn’t as though the latter is Itzhak Perlman with a Stradivarius or Willie Mosconi with a pool cue. McCain could conduct five town halls every day from now to November, and it wouldn’t be enough to make Americans forget the war or the economy or the joyous prospect of putting the last eight years of misery behind them once and for all.

But it may be all McCain has got. He won’t have the money or organization to compete with Obama on the ground or over the airwaves, so it’s in his interest to create as many campaign events as possible that will generate national press coverage without costing him money. And while he seems to become a worse orator with each speech he gives, at least he feels comfortable in the town hall setting. Back in 2000, the novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace went traveling with the McCain campaign, and noticed how different he was in this forum (Wallace’s essay can be found in his book Consider the Lobster):

In fairness to McCain, he’s not an orator and doesn’t pretend to be. His real métier is conversation, a back-and-forth. This is because he’s bright in a fast, flexible way that most other candidates aren’t. He also genuinely seems to find people and questions and arguments energizing -- the latter maybe because of all his years debating in Congress -- which is why he favors Town Hall Q&As and constant chats with the press in his rolling salon… In conversation he’s smart and alive and human and seems actually to listen and respond directly to you instead of to some demographic abstraction you might represent. It’s his speeches ... that are canned and stilted, and also sometimes scary and right-wingish, and when you listen closely to these it’s as if some warm pleasant fog suddenly lifts and it strikes you that you’re not at all sure it’s John McCain you want choosing the head of the EPA or the at least two new justices who’ll probably be coming onto the Supreme Court in the next term, and you start wondering all over again what makes the guy so attractive.

McCain employs a number of techniques in town halls, as he does in what Wallace calls his “rolling salon” with reporters, that are effective not because they reveal his utterly unique wisdom and qualities of mind, but simply because they’re different than what most politicians do. At a town hall in September, a New Hampshire high school student asked him whether he was too old to be president; McCain began his response by saying, “Thanks for the question, you little jerk.” It was reasonably funny, both because McCain was “revealing” his concern about being confronted with a potentially damaging issue, and because we’re not used to candidates employing the kind of sarcastic humor most of use all the time with our friends and family.

When a candidate does it in public, it violates the expected norms of politician behavior, and so some of us (especially reporters) will view it as an act of nearly superhuman “authenticity.” It seems far less spectacular, however, when you realize that McCain knows exactly what he’s doing, and he employs these kind of jokes with the precise intent of convincing us how authentic he is.

But what, in the end, does the town hall -- or the traditional debate, for that matter -- really tell us about a candidate? We can find out whether they have a familiarity with policy (something McCain seems to struggle with). There are occasional glimpses of their thinking on issues or philosophy. But mostly what we get is an extended view of what they want us to believe about them, and how good they are at conveying that impression.

Cynical though it might sound, this actually does serve a purpose. The signature moment of the 1992 campaign, for instance, was in a town hall-style debate, when a woman asked the candidates, “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?” George H.W. Bush struggled, sincerely but ineptly, to figure out what the hell she was talking about (he made the mistake of taking her question literally). When his turn came, Bill Clinton walked over to her, locked his eyes on hers, and said, “Tell me how it’s affected you again. You know people who’ve lost their jobs and lost their homes?” In the end, Clinton’s capacity for displaying empathy did offer a window into the kind of presidency he would have -- at least compared with the Republicans. Voters searching for someone who would feel their pain knew they had found their man.

But there is no guarantee that a town hall debate, or an ordinary debate, or anything that happens during the campaign, will actually predict what kind of president each of the candidates might turn out to be. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t -- on the trail in 2000, our current president showed himself to be a little dim and prone to oversimplifying the complex, but gave no hint of his penchant for believing that his plans for spreading catastrophe were nothing less than the will of God himself (read today, Bush’s paeans to his humility and bipartisan heart are enough to make you weep with despair).

The campaign will show us some things -- we will see the candidates suffering through crisis (even if it is only their campaign under threat, and not the nation), proving their stamina and persistence, enduring absurd rituals while pretending to have the time of their lives, and sewing together a pleasing persona for the press to pick over in an endless search for a misplaced stitch or a jagged crease.

But most of all, the candidates will talk. And though John McCain may prefer talking in a back-and-forth with voters, unless he plans to conscript citizens to participate in a daily White House town hall, his ability (or lack thereof) to give a good speech actually means a great deal to the potential success of a McCain presidency.

Giving speeches isn’t just something presidents do when they’re not doing the real work of running the country, it is one of the core duties of the president. In modern times, presidents give speeches nearly every day. The ability to move, inspire, comfort, and engage the public is one of the most valuable skills a president can have, and their speeches eventually become the touchstones of our historical memory. The Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt and Kennedy’s inaugurals, Reagan demanding that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall -- speeches come to define the president. There is one president, on the other hand, who tried to persuade the public through repeated use of the town hall. His presidency has seven months to go.

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