Commentary Magazine


On Barnes and Town Halls

Out of over twenty debates that Barack Obama has participated in, he has yet to come away with a decisive victory. John McCain, aiming to capitalize on his political foe’s weakness, recently challenged Obama to participate in ten town halls this summer. Fred Barnes argues on The Weekly Standard‘s The Blog that Obama’s political cowardice prevents him from accepting McCain’s town hall proposal. Barnes has a point: McCain is best when he’s spontaneous, while Obama has struggled in such situations. In his words:

So why wouldn’t Senator Bring-Us-Together jump enthusiastically at the opportunity? Several reasons, all political. Obama figures he’s going to win because of the strong Democratic tide and doesn’t want to offer opportunities for Republicans to lay a glove on him. Also, he’s not particularly good at town hall gatherings–spontaneity is not his thing–but McCain is at his best at such sessions. And Obama would rather give set speeches, at which he’s terrific, than take questions that might force him to deal with things (Rev. Wright, Tony Rezko, etc.) he’d rather not talk about.

Barnes is correct, but incomplete. McCain is lagging far behind Obama in money. As Jennifer Rubin says, “for a weakly-financed campaign it would be manna from heaven to have the networks covering the road show,” i.e., free press coverage that accurately contrasts the two presidential candidates might be McCain’s only hope to close the ever-growing gap.

Additionally, town halls do not come without risk for McCain. In the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy is considered to have benefited enormously by being seated across from Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debates. Could this pattern repeat? It appears so.

Here’s Markos Moulitsas of the DailyKos analyzing a picture of McCain:

It’s pretty bad when your hair is whiter than your teeth…I mean, they have teeth whitening products today. Just ask Chuck Norris. There’s also photoshop. No one at Camp McCain thinks this is relevant or worth fixing?

Firedoglake offers similarly banal observations:

The tie he was wearing, a sort of aquamarine blue had an incredible sheen on our HDTV while the suit was a great choice as well. When you compare it to the McCain shoulder pad suit and grandpa’s old tie from the back of the closet look? No question who looks like they are moving forward and who looks like they are stuck in 1984.

In short, McCain’s town hall gambit might backfire, but what else is the underdog to do? And most worrisome for McCain: no matter how poorly Obama performed in the primary debates, he ultimately won.