Politics & Policy

How McCain Won Saddleback

In an unusual setting, his experience overwhelmed Obama.

Lake Forest, Calif. — It’s fair to say that in the hours before John McCain appeared with Barack Obama at the “Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency,” here at Pastor Rick Warren’s famed southern California mega-church, there were at least a few McCain insiders who were a bit nervous about their candidate’s prospects. Obama can be remarkably polished in this sort of situation. Unlike other Democrats, he’s not afraid to hang out with evangelicals. McCain, on the other hand, can at times be cranky and take pleasure in irritating his base. Could he come out ahead in this one?

Team McCain needn’t have worried. This was not your usual political TV show. Warren — Pastor Rick, around here — asked big questions, about big subjects; he wasn’t concerned about what appeared on the front page of that morning’s Washington Post. And his simple, direct, big questions brought out something we don’t usually see in a presidential face-off; in this forum, as opposed to a read-the-prompter speech, or even a debate focused on the issues of the moment, the candidates were forced to call on everything they had — the things they have done and learned throughout their lives. And the fact is, John McCain has lived a much bigger life than Barack Obama. That’s not a slam at Obama; McCain has lived a much bigger life than most people. But it still made Obama look small in comparison. McCain was the clear winner of the night.

The idea was for Warren to question Obama for an hour — they tossed a coin to see who would go first — and then ask the same questions of McCain, who was not allowed to hear what Obama had answered before him. Not a few people in the press thought it was a bad idea. Asking each man the same questions meant Warren couldn’t tailor his queries to each man; sure, he could ask Obama about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but what sense would it make to ask McCain, too? It seemed like a recipe for nothing much at all.

But Pastor Rick hasn’t built a huge church and sold more than 25 million copies of The Purpose-Driven Life for nothing. By the time Warren finished questioning Obama, people were eager to hear how McCain would handle the same subjects. In a debate, candidates are often asked the same question, but the second guy has always heard what the first guy said and tailors his answer accordingly. At Saddleback, there was something much different — and more revealing — going on.

The contrast was striking throughout each man’s one-hour time on stage. When Warren asked Obama, “What’s the most gut-wrenching decision you’ve ever had to make?” Obama answered that opposing the war in Iraq was “as tough a decision that I’ve had to make, not only because there were political consequences but also because Saddam Hussein was a bad person and there was no doubt he meant America ill.” But Obama was a state senator in Illinois when Congress authorized the president to use force in Iraq. He didn’t have to make a decision on the war. That fact was a recurring issue in the Democratic primaries, when candidates Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd, and John Edwards argued that they, as senators, had to make a choice Obama didn’t have to make. And now he says it’s his toughest call.

When McCain got the question, he was able to tell an old story with a sense of gravity and poignancy that he seldom shows in public. He described his time as a prisoner of war, when he was offered a chance for early release because his father was a top naval officer. “I was in rather bad physical shape,” McCain told Warren, but “we had a code of conduct that said you only leave by order of capture.” So McCain refused to go. He made the telling even more forceful when he added that, “in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m very happy I didn’t know the war was going to last for another three years or so.” In one moment, he showed a sense of pride and a hint of regret, too; he came across as a man who did the right thing but not without the temptation to take an easy out. In any event, the message was very clear: John McCain has had to make bigger, more momentous decisions in his life than has Barack Obama.

McCain bested Obama again when Warren asked for an example of a time in which he “went against party loyalty and maybe even against your own best interest for the good of America.”

“Well, I’ll give you an example that in fact I worked with John McCain on,” Obama said, “and that was the issue of campaign ethics reform and finance reform.” But it turned out that was an issue on which Obama had briefly allied with McCain and then jumped back to the Democratic mother ship, causing McCain to write Obama an angry note about the abandonment of what had been a principled position. As far as bucking your party goes, it wasn’t very big stuff.

When McCain got the question, everyone in the room thought he would bring up campaign-finance reform, the issue on which he has alienated the Republican base for years. But he didn’t. “Climate change, out-of-control spending, torture,” he said. “The list goes on.” McCain’s prime example, though, was his story of opposing Ronald Reagan’s decision to send a contingent of Marines to Lebanon as a peacekeeping force. “My knowledge and my background told me that a few hundred Marines in a situation like that could not successfully carry out any kind of peacekeeping mission, and I thought they were going into harm’s way,” McCain said. But he deeply admired Reagan, and wanted to be loyal to the party; it was a difficult decision.

McCain answered the whole question without touching on campaign finance; he had so much more life experience to draw on that he could swamp Obama without using everything he had.

And on it went. On questions like the nature of evil and causes worth dying for, McCain’s depth stood out. And that was true even when he admitted wrongdoing. Early on in the questioning, Warren asked each man, “What…would be the greatest moral failure in your life, and what would be the greatest moral failure of America?” Obama answered that he drank and “experimented” with drugs as a teenager, which he attributed to his own selfishness. McCain, on the other hand, said, “The failure of my first marriage. It’s my greatest moral failure.”

McCain’s actions in that matter are nothing to brag about, but what came from it onstage at Saddleback was the sense that he was willing to dig deeper and take a greater risk in his answer than had Obama. McCain knew that critics on the left, looking for a way to change the subject from the John Edwards affair, had been pointing to the end of McCain’s first marriage. But McCain took the subject straight on. “He could have avoided that altogether or come up with some other answer,” Chip Pickering, the Mississippi Republican representative, told me later in the “Messaging Room.” (There’s no “Spin Room” at Saddleback; just a “Messaging Room.”) “But he very quickly, cleanly, and clearly confessed his failure.” Still, I said to Pickering, adultery doesn’t sit well with evangelicals, and that’s what McCain was talking about, wasn’t it? “The clarity of confessing his failure — there will be respect in the evangelical community for doing so,” Pickering answered.

Finally, there was the question of abortion. In the days leading up to the forum, pro-lifers had been worried that Warren was not going to include a question on the issue, focusing instead on things like poverty, AIDS, and the “new” evangelical agenda. But Warren brought it up, simple and straight. “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?” he asked Obama.

“Well, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade,” Obama answered. “But let me just speak more generally about the issue of abortion because this is something obviously the country wrestles with. One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is there is a moral and ethical content to this issue. So I think that anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue, I think, is not paying attention. So that would be point number one.” Obama went on to say that he is pro-choice. Even for people who agreed with him, it wasn’t a terribly impressive answer.

An hour later, when Warren asked McCain the same thing, he got this: “At the moment of conception. I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate, and as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies.”

“Okay — we don’t have to go longer on that one,” Warren said, quickly moving on.

Obama had nothing to win on the question; if anything, he seemed wary of saying something that might anger his pro-choice base. But McCain had a lot at stake with this group, and his answer seemed to settle the concerns of social conservatives who have been rattled by reports that he might be considering a pro-choice running mate. While many evangelicals have softened on the issue of gay marriage, they wanted to hear a solid, clear statement from McCain on abortion. “Abortion and marriage are still pivotal issues…but I think that abortion is probably more pivotal than marriage,” Marlys Popma, the Iowa social conservative who is now McCain’s national coordinator for evangelical issues, told me after the forum. “Abortion is still very, very solid with this group, even the younger ones [who are more liberal on marriage]. Life is a real delineating factor.”

To further press the case on abortion, McCain had brought along New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith, one of the most forceful pro-life voices in Congress. After the forum, I asked Smith whether Obama had helped himself at all with pro-lifers. Just the opposite, Smith said. “I thought Sen. Obama’s statement in quoting Matthew 25, which is my favorite scripture since I was in high school — ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do likewise to me’ — when as a matter of record he voted against [a ban on partial-birth abortion ]…well, I find it discouraging and disingenuous for him to talk about the least of our brethren.”

As far as the crowd is concerned, it was clear that McCain was the favorite. That was hardly a surprise; at a small gathering I attended a few years ago, someone asked Warren how many of his parishioners voted for John Kerry. He thought for a moment and said 15 percent. So the conservative Saddleback crowd, while happy to see Obama in their midst, was not going to be on his side. What they wanted was proof that John McCain was on theirs, and that’s what they got.

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