Before this Saturday, many analysts were predicting that the fall’s presidential debates would be a wipeout, with Barack Obama conjuring the spirit of the young John F. Kennedy and John McCain imitating the aging Bob Dole.
In a recent article in the Atlantic, James Fallows declared that McCain “will look and sound old and weak next to Obama.”
But if this weekend’s forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church is any indication of how the two candidates will perform in the presidential debates, it’s time to recalibrate the existing expectations. The debates may still be a wipeout — only Obama now seems likelier to bite the dust.
The Saddleback event appeared to be the ideal opportunity for Obama to make inroads among evangelicals. While his social views make the Democrat anathema to most evangelical voters, the bar is low for Obama. In 2004, 78 percent of evangelicals voted for President Bush in his narrow victory over John Kerry, and they represented nearly one out of four voters. Obama can win the election by improving over Kerry’s performance by just a few percentage points, especially in the key swing state of Ohio.
At first, it seemed that Obama was benefiting from the conversational format, in which each candidate answered identical questions from Warren for an hour, without strict time limits or sharp follow-ups. (McCain went second, but was kept in a soundproof room so he wouldn’t have an unfair advantage).
Obama showed humility, talked about selfishness that led him to experiment with drugs as a teenager, and invoked Matthew in discussing America’s obligation to address poverty, racism, and sexism. This was classic Obama — trying to frame his liberal views of economic and social justice in religious language.
But within a few minutes of McCain taking the stage, it became clear that it was his night. While McCain is typically uncomfortable talking about his faith, he played to his strengths by discussing his powerful life story, showing his stature and experience, and flashing his sense of humor. He connected to the audience emotionally while Obama was academic and — dare I say it — boring by comparison.
THE MOST DRAMATIC CONTRAST of the night came when Warren asked each candidate to talk about the most gut-wrenching decisions they’ve ever made. For Obama, it was deciding to oppose the Iraq War. At the time, he was a state senator who didn’t have to vote on the matter and was representing an overwhelmingly liberal district. For McCain, it was deciding to reject an offer of early release while being held as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese. At the time, McCain was in horrendous physical condition and knew that rejecting early release would not only extend his stay in the prison camp, but lead to even harsher treatment.
Asked to name an example of when they took a stand against their own party to do what they felt was best for the country, Obama cited ethics reform. McCain, after referencing climate change, spending, and torture, focused his answer on his opposition as a freshman congressman to President Reagan’s decision to send U.S. Marines to Lebanon in 1983.
The example subtly did two things. It pushed back against the portrait of McCain as a warmonger who supports military intervention in all circumstances and it reinforced the fact that he has been involved in America’s national security debates for decades.
Warren also asked the candidates whether evil exists and what we should do about it if it does. Both candidates acknowledged that it exists, but from there the responses couldn’t have been more different. Obama didn’t mention terrorism as evidence of evil, vaguely said we need to “confront” it, but cautioned that “a lot of evil’s been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.”
McCain, meanwhile, spoke like a commander in chief, firmly stating that “evil must be defeated” and acknowledging that the “transcendent challenge” of the century is radical Islamic extremism.
“Not long ago in Baghdad, al Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled, and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and, by remote control, detonated those suicide vests,” he said with refreshing moral clarity. “If that isn’t evil, you have to tell me what is.”
Aside from substance, McCain’s style couldn’t have been more different. While Obama gave long-winded and meandering answers (especially when he needed to obfuscate his views on abortion and gay marriage), McCain’s were short and to the point — so much so that he was left with extra time for additional questions.
Asked whether he would support merit pay for the best teachers, McCain simply responded, “Yes, yes, and find bad teachers another line of work.” The answer drew laughter and applause, and led Warren to remark, “You know, we’re going to end this, you’re answering so quickly. You want to play a game of poker?”
WHILE POLITICAL JUNKIES who have been following the campaign for nearly two years have heard many of McCain’s jokes and anecdotes, they appeared to be a hit with the crowd, as they consistently are in his town hall meetings. “My friends, we spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana,” McCain quipped in one of his standard lines about government waste. “Now I don’t know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue.”
Most importantly, McCain managed to meet the most important challenge of his campaign by coming off as independent and yet conservative — on taxes, judges, and abortion (where he stated in clear terms that he believed that babies are entitled to human rights at the moment of conception).
Given that evangelicals are still overwhelmingly Republican, McCain did have a built-in advantage among this audience. And since it was broadcast on a Saturday night in the summer — the same night that Michael Phelps broke the record for most gold medals in an Olympics — the event itself didn’t garner enough attention to affect the outcome of the election. But if McCain can shine like this in his high-profile appearances between now and Election Day, he’ll be our next president.
Obama has proven himself to be a fast learner, and no doubt will find ways to improve before the debates begin next month. But in all honesty, Obama wasn’t that bad on Saturday — McCain was just that good, and largely because of fundamental advantages.
Obama can read all the briefing books he wants and go through hours of debate training, but he can’t simply acquire a life story as compelling as McCain’s, make up for decades of experience he doesn’t have, or buy a sense of humor.