In some important ways, Tuesday night’s event resembled the 1996 town-hall debate between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.
Twelve years ago, the visuals worked to Clinton’s advantage. He was extremely skillful at the format, locking eyes with questioners and oozing sympathy for their problems. He was the male gender’s answer to Oprah.
Some commentators said that Dole seemed out of place because his true habitat was the Senate floor. Maybe, but his biggest handicap was a physical one. His war injuries cost him of the use of his right arm, so he moved awkwardly. Out from behind the protective shield of a lectern, he looked stiff and old.
McCain had a similar problem. Because of what happened to him in Vietnam, he limps and has difficulty moving his arms. These limitations became obvious when he walked around the debate floor. In a just world, television viewers would watch him and think “war hero.” In the real world, many probably thought “elderly man.”
Obama was no Bill Clinton, but he didn’t have to be. As a relatively young man in apparently good health, he benefited merely from the visual contrast with McCain. He moved with the easy grace of someone who’s never had to face any torture greater than sharing a stage with Alan Keyes.
In 1996, Bob Dole tried to attack Clinton while casting himself as a bipartisan problem-solver who could bring people together. The message was not entirely consistent. It’s hard to be both a pit bull and a border collie.
McCain suffered from the same kind of cognitive dissonance. He did his best to go after Obama, and then stressed his talent for working with Democrats. At points, his language had echoes of 1996. For instance McCain’s proposal for the entitlements problem was to name a commission: “We’re going to have to sit down across the table, Republican and Democrat, as we did in 1983 between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.”
Twelve years earlier, Dole said the same thing: “After this year is over, we’ll resolve it just as we did with Social Security in `83. It’s a nonpartisan commission. Ronald Reagan got together with Tip O’Neill and Howard Baker, two Republicans and one Democrat.”
Even in 1996, the idea of an entitlements commission was becoming questionable. The 1983 commission worked because congressional leaders wanted it to work. Tip O’Neill was a nastier partisan than most people remember, but he also had some sense of institutional responsibility. By Dole’s presidential race, however, the climate on Capitol Hill had turned more contentious. He had to quit the Senate because Democrats were engaging in legislative maneuvers to pin him down in Washington and make him look bad.
Fast-forward to 2009. Does anybody think that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid would forgo partisan advantage to craft a difficult and painful solution to the entitlements problem? (There is no other kind of solution.)
It’s understandable why McCain, like Dole, would make such a proposal. The idea of a bipartisan commission will not draw hordes of AARP protesters. But in 2008, like 1996, it’s not a great selling point, either. It neither stirs the blood nor brings tears to the eye.
We all know how the 1996 election turned out. If the 2008 election turns out differently, the reason will not lie in Tuesday night’s town-hall debate. — John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.