04 June 2008

The McCain Challenge

Senator McCain promptly renewed his invitation to Senator Obama to join him in a series of town meetings, beginning as early as next week. You can read his people's letter to Obama's people here. The Democrat has signaled that he's open to idea but wants to negotiate the format, and McCain has indicated that he's open to suggestions. Length looks likely to be the sticking point. McCain suggests a 60-90 minute total format, while Obama wants something closer to Lincoln and Douglas, which would mean 60-90 minutes for one speech. That might prove a challenge to McCain's stamina and his oratory. From what I've read, Republican bloggers have lambasted the speech McCain gave last night in an attempt to overshadow Obama's expected victory. They concede that their man can't match Obama on the stump, though they always insist that McCain is superior in substance. McCain himself wants short answers to randomly-selected questions from the general public. In other words, he wants the sound-bites made possible by the modern "debate" format but without the annoyance presented by news-network moderators. On that last point, Obama is sure to agree with McCain following the travesty of the ABC "debate." However, I'm not sure if either man appreciates that by turning the questioning over to ordinary people, they're still likely to get the same sort of 'gotcha' questions that they endured during the primary season. After all, those people's thoughts on political questions are most likely to be shaped either by their choice of news network or by the blogs they read. Both candidates may hope for questioners who base their inquiries on personal experience, but neither seems willing to take the precautions necessary to filter out the cranks most likely to ask the same questions no matter where the candidates go. I give McCain credit for looking for an alternative way to debate Obama, and I credit Obama for appearing interested, but I have my doubts about whether it will turn out the way either man envisions. If they really want to set the agenda rather than have one imposed on them, they should be willing to speak for themselves instead of asking questions.

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A historical note: If you read McCain's letter you'll see that he invokes the thwarted example of John F. Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, who planned to make joint appearances during the 1964 presidential election. As McCain notes, the plan was wrecked by JFK's assassination, but it's a mistake, albeit an honest one, to assume that it would have worked out the way McCain suggests. For all that Kennedy was interested in the idea, Goldwater wasn't yet in any position to hold up his end of the bargain. While he may have been the Republican front-runner by November 1963, he had a long primary season to get through before he claimed the nomination. Any promise Kennedy may have made to him should be seen in that light. The President might have made the commitment without necessarily believing that he'd have to live up to it, since Goldwater might have failed in the primaries, --and, as it happened, he couldn't live up to it.

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