The Candidates Debate - Kinda Sorta
On Saturday evening John McCain and Barack Obama participated in a very unique setting called "The Saddleback Forum" at the Saddleback Church in California. The basic format was that each candidate sat down for a one on one, almost job interview-like, Q&A with the host - Saddleback pastor Rick Warren in front of a live audience comprised of the church's congregation. The first candidate would answer the list of questions while the second candidate would be in some sort of an isolation room so as not to be able to hear the questions and the answers provided by his opponent in advance. And no, there was no Family Feud style buzzer for duplicated answers - not that they would have needed one anyway. Just a warning for readers - I haven't posted in awhile so this one is pretty long even for me.

Before I get into the specifics on the event and on each candidate, I would like to point out that if you had no idea this was going on then you are not alone. I'm supposed to be the Politics guy around here and I definitely listen to talk radio and watch the cable news outlets fairly frequently and could not remember a mention of this very important and interesting event. In fact the only reason I stumbled upon it was that NBC, in their Olympic coverage, decided to basically show the women's marathon in its entirety. This sent me looking for other programming options. (On a side note, I will post an Olympic review after the conclusion of the Games. The Games have been incredibly interesting and well presented but this programming decision was a huge whiff - you just can't show 2.5 hours of jogging on primetime network TV. C'mon NBC - do better!)

With that out of the way, I settled into my recliner with my trusty notebook ready to watch the candidates indirectly duke it out. Obama got the nod to go first and stepped up to the plate in more "business casual" clothing than we're used to seeing from a presidential candidate on Live TV. I assume to underscore the informal nature of the event. After dispensing with the normal pleasantries to the host and audience they quickly got into the questions, which were broken down into four sections - Leadership skills, Morality & Worldview, Nstional Policies and International Policies.

The first section, Leadership skills, is one that Obama definitely needed a strong showing in for independent voters. This was needed to overcome his lack of experience compared with McCain. The big hammering point for conservative talk hosts like Rush and Hannity is that they often challenge Obama supporters to name 3 or even sometimes 1 specific legislative accomplishment for Obama. Very few supporters have been able to mount specific examples, preferring instead his vague message of "change". In this section Obama made several responses that were tied to his opposition to the Iraq war from the beginning (the same big contrast that he used against Hillary in the primaries). He was then asked questions about his personal failures. Obama admitted that his past drug use and non- specific "personal selfishness" in his youth were his biggest personal shames. When asked what could be considered the biggest shame of the nation as a whole, Obama responded that the US has not always done enough for the poor while also noting that Welfare Reform has worked out better than he would have thought. He counted this issue as a time in which he has "flip flopped" after more information became available. All in all the best way I can describe his performance in this section was that he was basically treading water - no big gaffes but no real homeruns either.

The second section, Morality & Worldview, seemed to present Obama with a difficult task in explaining his platform to an audience comprised of Evangelical Christians who have historically backed the Republican line of thought. He made a point to thoroughly attest to his personal Christian faith. As far as the questions went, Obama scored strongly with the audience in declaring that he believes marriage to be between a man and a woman (though he would not support a Constitutional Amendment to define it that way - he preferred to leave that up to individual states). He also stated that stem cell research should be done under narrow circumstances and embryos should not be created just to be destroyed in research (for some reason the host did not ask about federal funding for these projects, which was strange). Obama also voiced his support for faith based organizations being able to provide service better than government organizations - 95% of the time, which definitely impressed the audience.

But this section was also where Obama struggled the most, providing the most material for future attack ads to his opposition. On abortion he stated that moral questions of that nature are "above my paygrade". Seriously, that's what he said. This was the only point for either candidate in which the very respectful audience let out a very audible groan and for good reason. You simply can't be trying to gain the highest office in the world and say that any issue is above your head. When asked about which Supreme Court justice he would NOT have nominated, he very nervously stated that it would be Clarence Thomas due to his lack of experience in legal scholarship. From a man trying to down play experience as a qualification for high office this was a significant mis-step. Not for deciding to pick Clarence Thomas, who is one of the least popular Justices, just that he used the reasons that he did. One of the more pointed questions was whether or not evil exists and what to do about it. Obama said it does exist and must be confronted, but that the US needs to understand that our actions can sometimes amount to evil in the eyes of others and that evil exists on the street corners of America as well. This may well be true, but for a presidential candidate to not at all mention terrorism in this context was questionable at best. Expect McCain ads highlighting some if not all of these responses by Obama.

Moving to national policies, the host asked several questions on education, taxes and national security. On education he was asked if teachers should be paid on a merit-based approach? He responded that he would support that plan if it could be done in a way that teacher's unions would approve of the plan (that will happen shortly after we figure out a way to turn lead into gold). On his tax plan Obama was asked to define what it means to be rich? He stated that it heavily depends on what region of the country you live in (which is very true) and that he would say that usually a family earning under $150K is not "rich" and that usually a family earning over $250K is "rich". Of course a huge chunk of American families are between $150K - $250K, where they stand in Obama's eyes is anyone's guess at this time as the host didn't bother to followup. On national security Obama talked of the need to balance personal privacy with the collective needs of the nation without providing any real dividing lines upon which he would make judgements. He did talk of his firm belief that the Judiciary needs to serve as a check on Executive excess (speaking to Bush's surveillance policies which Obama has always opposed).

Internationally, the questions focused on genocide, orphans (which apparently is a big pet issue for the host), and human trafficking. When confronted with genocide in another nation Obama said he would first seek international approval before taking action but would not be bound by international pressures to act or not to act on the situation by committing US troops to the cause. He promised to make orphans and the issue of human trafficking "top priorities". When asked about religious persecution he took advantage of the topic to jump off point to say that we are in a tough situation with China since they lend us money which he contends is due to our spending so much in the Iraq War. He closed his interview round by stating that big problems are not easy to solve and we may have to pay a short term cost for long term solutions (you can safely assume he was speaking about alternative energy sources long term and limiting oil consumption short term).

After finishing Obama's portion, McCain emerged from his sealed underground undisclosed location (okay I'm exagerrating) to join Obama for a brief congenial embrace for the crowd. He too was dressed much more casually than we'll ever see him in a formal debate. As this was the first time the two candidates have been on stage together, this was a very nice treat for the crowd and they definitely appreciated the moment.

McCain was then presented with the exact same questions previously presented to Obama - Section One, Leadership. When McCain was asked about his personal moral failure he owned up to the failure of his first marriage but his response indicated that he had NO interest in being asked any followup questions on that subject (If anyone remembers that old SNL sketch with Garth Brooks and Robert Duval competing on a fake game show "Grizzled Old Man" it was very reminiscent of that. If you don't remember there's always YouTube). On America's failure it has been that American Exceptionalism (in other words Reaganism) has not been emphasized enough lately. When asked about an example of when he broke from party lines McCain couldn't help but laugh. There are a litany of examples on which McCain earned his "Maverick" reputation in breaking with the Republican Party and he made sure to point all of them out (climate change, campaign finance, spending, border security and torture were all mentioned). One of the most memorable moments of the night came when the host asked McCain about an example of when he "flip-flopped" on an issue due to new information. It was almost as if he was wearing a shock collar and someone behind the curtain pushed the shock button. He jumped up and immediately said it was on offshore drilling for oil. He opposed it when gas was $1.50 a gallon and he was a Senator and now that it is $4.00 a gallon and he is a Presidential candidate he has changed his mind. This is the big issue that Republicans are going to hammer the Democrats on in November and they are making no secret of it. Clear edge to McCain on this subject.

On matters of Morality and Worldview, McCain set out with the agenda of answering all questions quickly, forcefully and decisively. He used this line of questions and the others that followed to describe in depth his experiences as a P.O.W. He seemed to go into much greater detail than he had in the primaries to feature this experience as his foundation in moral decisions pertaining to rights of life. An easy jumping off point was to declare that fetuses have human rights - "at the moment of conception". Marriage is between Man and Woman and he would support a constitutional amendment pending review of its language. Though he did clearly back track once. On stem cells he did try to avoid the question. This is a weak point for Republicans as the majority of independent Americans have and do support federal funding for stem cell research in the hope of curing disease. He quickly offered skin cell research from living donors as a counterproposal. Some would think this as just as much an unreasonable pipedream substitute as ethanol is to oil at this point in the science. In matters of evil, McCain says it definitely exists and that it must not only be confronted but be defeated. He promised "to chase Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida to the gates of hell". Very direct, very forceful.

With national policies McCain continued to take the approach of quickly answering each question. The most liberal members of the Supreme Court - Ginsburg, Breyer, Souter and Stevens would not have been appointed by theoretical President McCain. (Of course Stevens and Souter were actually nominated by Republican presidents - Gerald Ford and George HW Bush respectively, so it can be hard to tell what you're really getting in a Supreme Court nominee). On education McCain talked about the need for school choice (ie vouchers for private school). If Obama needs to turn lead into gold before getting teachers unions to agree to merit pay, McCain will need to perfect cold fusion before getting vouchers through on a national level. With National Security McCain talked of the need for all branches of government to work together. This is consistent with Bush's Dept of Homeland Security and in clear contrast to Obama's preference for strict checks and balances. On taxes McCain produced his big gaffe of the night. When before he was quick and decisive with his answers, when asked to define what it means to be "rich" in terms of income, McCain danced around the issue but eventually said almost jokingly "I dunno - $5 million is probably rich". Insert Democrat ad here. If abortion and terrorism is right in the wheelhouse for Republicans, income inequality is right there for Democrats.

When dealing with international affairs, McCain said that while the US cannot right all of the wrongs around the world, our history is to fight for the freedoms of ourselves and others when rights are being suppressed and that we must serve as a "Shining City on a Hill" (another Reagan reference). An interesting statement by McCain regarding the present situation in Georgia is that they are being invaded by the "Russian Empire". Since the fall of the Soviet Union the West has tried to do what it can to treat the former advisary as an ally, and this latest course of action by the Russians has put US statesmen in a difficult spot. By using this statement McCain is clearly showing a departure from that point of view, even indicating military action against Russia (with international assistance) is possible. McCain closed by saying that he wants to be president primarily to inspire US citizens to act beyond their self interest and that he has always put country first in his military and congressional service. He said that he will present his views in "any forum" and that he is running to be the president for all US citizens, even those who won't vote for him (mentioning his NAACP speech some months ago).

By presenting themselves in this format the candidates were able to express their views and positions without having to fight each other for mic time and not allowing for superficial comparisons like whose suit looked better. This is what the public swears they want to see and hear - they don't want attack ads and they don't want to see the candidates to needlessly jockey for position on stage. My gut feeling is the reason this event was not heavily promoted is that contrary to what people say, they really won't watch something without direct competition and drama. I expect ratings for this very informative event to be very low despite the fact that this event shed more light on the candidates than you'll see in any formal debate. I thought the host was remarkably fair in sticking with the same format for both. My only complaint about the questions is that there was absolutely nothing asked of the candidates in regards to health care/Medicare. Health care expenses account for roughly 1/7 of the US Economy. Medicare funding has been in peril for some time. It personally affects all citizens and the candidates have very different positions on each (Obama is for more "universal" public financing of healthcare and McCain is for private options such as health care saving acounts). It was a huge blemish on the night that the candidates were not forced to elaborate and defend their respective positions.

The real nuts and bolts distinction between the candidates is that McCain is more definite, even if his plans conflict with his Party. Obama is more deliberative regardless of the conclusions he reaches. Obama seeks a more intellectual debate on issues, seeking to equally incoporate the views of all interested parties in the debate. McCain leans heavily on personal experience to reach a decisive conclusion in placing more interest in American individualism than on the collective. Obama seems to see the US as having certain fundamental flaws that need to be changed (primarily services to the poorest of our citizens) which he took full advantage of the stage in front of a Christian audience to emphasize. McCain feels that we already are acting appropriately in most regards and that we just need to do a better job of expounding on our bedrock principles of personal responsibility and individual rights as opposed to large government intervention to address problems. This is nothing new for the candidates of the respective major US parties and you can judge for yourself which qualities are more valuable in the highest Executive office in the world.

In my eyes, this can reasonably be considered as a small and very qualified victory for McCain. Of course he did have what basically amounted to a home field advantage, appearing before an audience of mainly Evangelical Christians. While he is not a slam dunk candidate for their support, he had a clear edge going into the night. Obama's strong defense of his Christian values may have made some sort of inroads in easing fears about him (a small percent of Americans still believe the ridiculous notion that he may be a closet Muslim). Evangelical Christians were a big swing voting block that George Bush used successfully in defeating Gore and Kerry. They are a majority for McCain but he has not sewn them up in such large numbers as Bush did. Those voters clearly preferred Mike Huckabee and even Mitt Romney as opposed to McCain, and this night was for them. McCain could sure up that vote and therefore do much to lock up some swing states on the electoral map. Or Obama could win over enough of them to put some previous Red states into play. McCain could have won them all and Obama could have lost them all, neither really seemed to happen. In other words, my best guess is that if 20% of Evangelical voters are undecided, McCain won 10% and Obama won 5% last night with 5% remaining open and Very Very Important in those swing states.

The conventions start up in the next few weeks and both sides are lining up speakers and events in an effort to maximize their "convention bounces". Once the candidates were initially named, Obama had approximately a 7% lead in the polls. That lead has evaporated over time and it is now virtually a dead heat nationally. The Democrat convention in Denver is first and Obama can reasonably expect to be 10% ahead in the national polls after it concludes and his VP is announced. McCain and the Republicans will then answer with their speeches and their VP nominee, and the polls after the Republican Convention ends will be telling. I'll make a comprehensive review of each Convention after they conclude including what the electoral map looks like once each man announces his running mate.


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The Candidates Debate - Kinda Sorta
Authored by: DiRT on Sunday, August 17 2008 @ 11:50 PM EDT
You should check the news websites more often. This was the lead story on yesterday before the hurricane took over:

I'd also like to point out one of the most interesting articles I've seen about the healthcare "crisis", even though it was in the New York Times:

Beyond Those Health Care Numbers

The article brings up points such as how life expectancy numbers are often weighted down by accidents and homicides but are still used to portray a healthcare system in crisis, how the uninsured numbers don't include those covered by Medicaid or exclude those who have opted out of their employers' insurance plans, and how an increase in personal spending towards healthcare often fails to recognize that we can diagnose more ailments, treat more symptoms, and extend our lives longer than the generation that came before us.

Plus, after Michael Moore attempted to skew the perception with 'Sicko' and got dragged across the coals again, I could see a lot of people thinking: "Well, maybe ALL the doom and gloom was a lie," and moving against the perceived notions of necessary changes and Warren saw no need to address healthcare at this time.

The Candidates Debate - Kinda Sorta
Authored by: vglosers on Tuesday, August 19 2008 @ 02:10 PM EDT

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