This was the worst-moderated debate in the history of presidential debates,” one McCain campaign insider told me just moments after John McCain and Barack Obama left the stage at Belmont University in Nashville. “The audience and the American people should feel robbed — that the one opportunity they had to ask questions of the presidential candidates was taken from them by Tom Brokaw.”
Before the debate, there had been lots of talk about how the town-hall format would favor McCain, who has done hundreds of town halls in his 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns. Ten days ago, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe tried to set expectations sky-high when he said, of Tuesday night’s debate, “We will be a decided underdog in that encounter. John McCain is the undisputed town hall champion.”
But the town halls in which McCain has done well have been free-wheeling affairs, with no moderators, no filters, and a lot of personal and sometimes decidedly quirky questions. And plenty of follow-up questions, too. Any reporter who has followed McCain around has seen him engage in a long back-and-forth with a voter who was agitated about this or that topic — and then, perhaps, speak even more to the voter after the event ended. It’s McCain’s ideal way to connect with voters.
But this debate wasn’t that, and perhaps it couldn’t be. The stakes were too high, the time too limited, and the rules (agreed upon by both sides) too carefully negotiated for there to be a truly loose exchange of views. It’s also true that for much of the night Brokaw seemed to ask a question of his own for every question that came from the audience or from the Internet. If McCain’s advisers were hoping for a genuine New Hampshire voter-interaction town hall experience, they didn’t get it.
Of course, neither did Obama, but after the debate Camp Obama didn’t seem nearly as unhappy. They didn’t see the debate as a true town hall — the kind of event Obama has declined to participate in with McCain — but they weren’t particularly bothered. “Any moderator is going to take the agreement and shape it to an event,” a senior Obama aide told me. “We’re certainly not looking for excuses tonight the way the McCain camp may be.”
But they were looking for good talking points, and they think they might have found one in McCain’s reference to Obama as “that one.” Discussing the energy bill, McCain had said, “You know who voted for it? You might never know — that one,” pointing to Obama. “You know who voted against it? Me.”
“That was a fairly telling moment,” the Obama adviser told me. “In the last debate, [McCain] couldn’t look [Obama] in the eyes, and in this one he couldn’t even say his name….Voters pick up on those things.”
McCain’s aides say he meant no disrespect. “I think [McCain] was trying to be funny,” the McCain adviser told me. “I don’t think he was trying to be pejorative. I wish he hadn’t done that, but it’s just how it came out. I think he was trying to be funny.”
Team Obama wasn’t buying it, because they thought the “that one” episode wasn’t the only example of what they viewed as McCain’s hostility. “McCain simply isn’t comfortable being around Obama at this point,” the Obama adviser told me. The adviser brought up the end of the debate, when “Obama sticks out his hand to McCain and McCain kind of nudges Cindy there, so that Obama shook Cindy McCain’s hand.” The implication was that McCain so dislikes Obama that he wouldn’t even shake his hand. But McCain and Obama had already shaken hands and briefly embraced immediately after the debate ended — in fact, they were standing so close to each other that Brokaw had to ask them to separate so that he could see the TelePrompter. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a snub.
But it’s still true that there aren’t exactly warm feelings between the two campaigns. How could there be? And on this night, you know when advisers are talking so much about atmospherics that perhaps neither side feels the actual debate accomplished very much. It was, as many commentators judged it, a pretty dull affair.
“The game plan going in was to connect with the audience, connect with the American people on the economic crisis and to contrast how we would handle the crisis with how Obama would,” the McCain insider told me. It’s not clear whether McCain succeeded at that, but he did make the only real news of the evening when he advocated a new program that would — well, let McCain say it himself:
“As president of the United States,” McCain announced, “I would 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 and let people be able to make those — be able to make those payments and stay in their homes.” McCain’s proposal — he said it would be “expensive,” but didn’t say how expensive — was a simplified version of an idea floated by the economist Martin Feldstein, and it has not, up until now, been part of the daily back-and-forth out on the campaign trail. Obama didn’t respond; we’ll see what he says in coming days.
Beyond McCain’s new plan, and the various instances of alleged ill will between the candidates, there really wasn’t much else that was noteworthy in Nashville Tuesday night. There were no new lines of argument and no gloves-off references to William Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, or any other Obama associates. Before the debate, McCain aides suggested to me that there wouldn’t be any serious fisticuffs because the format wasn’t conducive to that sort of thing. And indeed, there were none. So now, if McCain wants to come out swinging, he has one more chance, at the last debate, scheduled for next Wednesday at Hofstra University in New York.