Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Live From The Grand Old Town Hally

To be honest, I've struggled with the first two rounds of debate season. I tried to watch both on iPlayer but found myself rapidly not caring about either. Maybe that's a function of my having made my mind up long before even the primaries, but it didn't feel right to be disinterested in it. And so I promised myself to watch at least one of the debates live, which is why I'm in front of News 24 tonight.

The Town Hall format is interesting, even to a Briton brought up in the era of Question Time where public interrogation of politicians is a weekly event. What is immediately striking is the difficulty, even at the linguistic level, for either candidate to connect with the audience. Obama opens up answering on actions to bail out citizens as well as banks, but he has to talk about “you” because talking about “us” would be ludicrous; he's not feeling the pinch because he's on a senator's salary and so is McCain. But once you say you, what you're saying is very different.

It's also immediately clear why all the hype was about McCain's ability in this format. In that first answer he does a very good job of talking both to the questioner and to the whole audience; Obama fixates on the questioner. When Tom Brokaw follows up, however, it's the other way around, McCain talking to the chair while Obama talks to the crowd.

Whether it's the format or the ads, there's definitely a more direct aspect to the exchanges. Then again, I've always taken the view that there's a difference between pointing out facts about your opponent and saying they blow goats and the exchanges here are clearly about each other's record. The result is a plague on both your houses and lo, Obama's pivot is away from the row about the facts and towards the practicalities for the questioner.

The saddest thing about the financial debate is how much both sides have reached towards energy independence. By definition, being energy independent is probably more expensive than where we are now, because if it wasn't you'd already be there. There's a clear national security benefit to reducing foreign oil expenditure, but there's unlikely to be a financial one, certainly in the next eight years. Nice to hear Obama make the Apollo Project comparison; can't imagine where he got that from...

As a recovering physicist I quite like the use of the planetarium projector as an example of a bad earmark, if only because it demonstrates that McCain's advisers don't have a basic factual understanding of things. The point being made isn't that giving money to planetariums is bad, it's that $3m is too much for a projector, which is fine until you actual think about what a planetarium looks like and how much bespoke structural metalwork you need for that sort of thing. If you're going to attack a value as being ridiculous for what it is, you ought to check exactly what it is and whether it really is ridiculous.

And then Obama answers my opening point with the best pivot of the lot; I don't need a tax cut, neither does he, so we shouldn't get one. McCain's response is interesting, because he tries to paint his position as being a freeze rather than a cut on taxes for the wealthy. What they're talking about is Dubya's headline policy and whether it should be maintained or reversed; how it plays will depend very much on whether the voters spot that.

Dear God, an American called for nuclear reprocessing! I just wish it wasn't McCain! It's particularly interesting territory for McCain; much as he leads into it with his experience on nuclear ships, the reason America stopped reprocessing is because they decided it was a proliferation threat (it isn't but they had a paranoid moment). Obama's phrase, that he supports nuclear as a part of the solution, is interesting; it's better than nothing, but you can read so much into it. Tom Brokaw's been reading my blog though, taking Apollo and turning it into Manhattan just the way I told him to...

Finally we reach healthcare, a subject that has been surprising in its absence from this campaign. After all, if you as McCain are trying to paint Obama as a bleeding heart liberal egghead communist, you'd think “he wants to socialise healthcare” would be page one of your playbook. Now we're getting into the meat and drink of the narratives; Obama brings the first biblical allusion, McCain goes on the offensive with Obama talking about government first. If there's one issue that should kill the Republican Party dead at the root, it's this one; sooner or later, the inability of small government and the private sector to deliver universal healthcare will kill America itself if it doesn't get the Republicans first.

Jed Bartlet is throwing stuff at the screen right now, because McCain just invoked “in the history of the world” and you don't do that. Okay, he wasn't comparing himself to the Visigoths adjusted for inflation, but for a non-American the whole “we're the biggest force for good there's ever been” bit is pretty galling. In Obama's response I heard echoes of “I will not make an issue of the youth and inexperience of my opponent”, but that was probably just me and not the dial groups. To make things worse, Brokaw's follow up begs for the premise of the question to be rejected; in the twenty-first century, every humanitarian crisis has national security implications for everyone, no matter how far away. Either way, this is the area where I as a Briton am least qualified to judge the answers; I get Obama's point about allies, but I don't believe the majority of Americans are there yet.

Possible award for strangest comment of the night; “Russia is not behaving the way we'd expect a country that has become so rich through petrodollars would”. Yeah, 'cos the way Russia's developing is so different to the way Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran have. Then again, Obama responds by suggesting that Poland needs America's help to rebuild its economy and leave the old Soviet sphere of influence, and my eyes roll once more.

Inevitably there's a question from a veteran (though not one so gnarly and grizzled as we tend to think of when we conjure with that word). It's then that it strikes me that much of McCain's comfort with the format is rooted in the bond he can develop with veterans; statistically in America you're going to benefit from that a lot, but he's not had that advantage tonight until late on.

He may have been learning from me, but Tom Brokaw's been learning from David Dimbleby and he's picked a terrific last question. The answers, of course, go back to the narratives, though it's a forgiveable reach for them to do so. I still think that Obama's narrative is more authentic than McCain's, but I am biased in that respect.

It's for others to decide what the result was; maybe it's because I know the Santos-Vinick debate so well that I feel much the same after this debate as I did then. The one thing it certainly wasn't is the big McCain win he needed to overturn the current poll leads and if that is borne out and Obama survives the debate McCain was meant to beat him on, we could be very close to a result.

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