Last night’s "town hall" debate was not exactly newsworthy. John McCain announced a proposal to buy up all bad mortgages in the country as a further step towards solving the economic crisis, an idea that was quickly condemned by his own base. Barack Obama suggested that despite the cost of his health care plan, and the lack of funds after the Bailout, we needed to proceed more than ever with universal health insurance, nibbling at the enormity of the economic crisis without explicitly addressing it. Neither candidate demonstrated much in the way of macroeconomic savoir faire.
I am fascinated by the emotion-meters that CNN gives to undecided voters which allow them to register instantly whether they approve or disapprove of what a candidate is saying. The most consistent result is that whenever either candidate went on the attack, the meters crashed. Voters do not want their politicians taking potshots at each other when the nation faces serious difficulties. Only once did an attack get a positive response, and it was a counter-attack. After being criticized very condescendingly by McCain for not "understanding" foreign policy, Obama shot back with a sharp criticism of the decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place, questioning McCain’s judgment. The emoto-meters stayed high, especially among women.
The economic crisis is so large and the proposals offered last night seemed so small. McCain talked about nuclear power three times, but it is difficult to see how that is the key to the crisis. Obama gave a thorough and smoothly delivered critique of the trickle-down theories that have guided the GOP since Ronald Reagan and which have left the country chronically insolvent. Neither delivered on the empathy front.
Neither did either candidate deliver a knockout debate punch. There was a real opportunity to do so. One woman asked what I believe was the best question ever asked by anybody in a debate forum: "Is health care a commodity?" McCain could have explained that the best way to allocate goods and services remains the market. Obama could have hit a home run in recognizing that health care is about security and, as we saw Franklin Roosevelt assert is yesterday’s post, security is a spiritual value. That question was the opening for either candidate to discuss what really must occur in the next four years, a renegotiation of the social contract akin to what FDR accomplished in his first term.
Was there a winner? According to a CNN poll taken immediately after the event, 54 percent of voters who watched the debate thought Obama had won while 30 percent thought the same of McCain. Most worryingly for the McCain campaign, 54 percent also said Obama appeared to be the stronger leader, compared to 42 percent who thought McCain appeared stronger. "Leadership" is a fuzzy concept, but insofar as McCain needs to create doubts about Obama, a majority who seem him as the stronger leader of the two shows what little traction McCain’s attacks have had. Insofar as no one "won" then Obama won because McCain is behind and needs a way to change the debate. But, neither candidate impressed and the American people want the reassurance that their next president is going to be impressive in his command of the economic crisis that has millions of Americans worried.
Michael Sean Winters