McCain-Obama and the current state of play


The biggest yawn, in any high-stakes political race, is the entirely predictable clash of the candidates over when to debate, and how often they should debate, and in what format they should debate. This is the turgid, ephemeral plot arc known in the press as "the debate over debates," a phrase that should have been banned from all print and broadcast copy a generation ago.

So naturally we're riding this arc right now (earlier than ever), with John McCain proposing that Barack Obama join him at 10 "town halls," where they'd take questions from real folks, and with Obama instead pitching four debates and only one town hall. McCain naturally declares that Obama's refusal to do 10 town halls is an insult to average Americans, and Obama naturally argues that five events should sufficiently sate the public's appetite. In terms of excitement, tracking this kind of gamesmanship is roughly equivalent to watching your nails grow.

And if you're a voter, maybe you don't pay attention at all. Much fuss was made, earlier this spring, about the fact that New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg was refusing to debate his Democrat primary opponent, Rob Andrews. That became a running story in the press, because Andrews campaigned on Lautenberg's refusal. But voters didn't care; earlier this month, Lautenberg won by 25 points.

And yet, those caveats notwithstanding, the McCain-Obama standoff actually provides us a window into the current state of play in the race itself - a broader context. Here's what the jousting is really all about:

1. McCain is trailing, and he's acutely aware of it. He's behind in virtually all the national polls, and, according to new surveys released this morning by the Quinnipiac pollsters, he's also trailing Obama in the key battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and (surprisingly) Florida. In politics, generally speaking, the trailing candidate always wants to stage joint appearances as much as possible, to maximize his or her chances of leveling the playing field.

2. McCain is low on money, at least when measured against Obama. He needs to maximize his free media exposure. But he can't draw decent TV ratings for his town halls unless he has Obama sharing top billing.

3. McCain can't give a podium speech without prompting ridicule. Watch his June 3 primary night speech here, and behold his grin-grimace. He looks like he's being probed by a proctologist. Hence his need to maximize his off-the-cuff conversational strengths as often as possible, presumably with a less gifted Obama in tow. (The McCain team's assumption - that Obama would somehow be struck dumb by the prospect of answering questions from real people - is highly debatable, but clearly they realize the need to somehow narrow the charisma chasm.)

4. McCain needs to convince voters that he's not joined at the hip with George W. Bush. Presumably, by trumpeting his willingness to meet with real people in town halls as much as possible, and by advertising his eagerness to entertain adversarial questions, he is drawing a sharp stylistic contrast with the cocooned president. (McCain hopes that style trumps substance. Because here's how the substance played out yesterday: McCain called for off-shore oil drilling, reversing his longstanding support for the federal moratorium; and virtually at the same time, Bush's aides let it be known that Bush will call for off-shore oil drilling, reversing his longstanding support for the federal moratorium.)

5. Conversely, since Obama is ahead, what's the incentive for letting the underdog dictate the terms of discourse? The way politics typically works, the top dog candidate sets the pace. And it's not as if the public is suddenly hungry to see Obama match wits with an opponent. Obama has already debated 26 times over the past year, which undercuts any suggestion by McCain that Obama is somehow afraid to leave his teleprompter. And most voters assume - correctly - that Obama and McCain will inevitably meet several times this autumn, when the contest is on the line; indeed, ever since autumn 1992, all the major candidates have participated in both the traditional and town-hall formats.

Only twice in my memory have presidential candidates been politically damaged by their reluctance to debate. In autumn 1980, President Carter took a hit in the polls when he refused to meet challenger Ronald Reagan in a format that included third-party hopeful John Anderson. And in early autumn 1992, the first President Bush dragged his feet on debating challenger Bill Clinton, mostly because Bush didn't like the idea of a single moderator. But those were special circumstances; both Carter and Bush already had baggage as unpopular presidents, so their balkings were widely viewed as further proof of their shortcomings.

Obama, by comparison, risks very little by keeping McCain at bay.

And, frankly, it's puzzling that the McCain people are so bullish about pitting their man against Obama in a town-hall format. After all, McCain was regaling a town-hall audience when he made his impromptu remark about keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for 100 years (which prompts the question: for how long is McCain willing to commit U.S. combat troops, in order to start the clock on a peaceful occupation?).

And McCain was in a town-hall setting when he insisted, not long ago, that "we have drawn down to pre-Surge levels" in Iraq, a statement that is at variance with factual reality. And he was again in a town-hall meeting when he declared this: "My friends, I will have an energy policy that we will be talking about, which will eliminate our dependence on oil from the Middle East that will — that will then prevent us — that will prevent us from having ever to send our young men and women into conflict again in the Middle East." Wow. Until McCain came out with that one, I had assumed that only the antiwar left believed we had gone to war in Iraq to get the oil. And if that's not what McCain meant to say, then perhaps he's not as deft off the cuff as commonly assumed.

So, in the unlikelihood that Obama does agree to stage some town-hall debates this summer, perhaps this is the best advice for the McCain camp: Be careful what you wish for.