Sunday, August 17, 2008

Saddleback: Advantage McCain and His Tribe

A Sense of Relief. Well, I'm certainly glad the Saddleback Civil Forum is over. Wheew!

That's partly because I'm an atheist. In principle, I'm all for holding political events in mega-churches, sports stadiums, the Convention Center in my hometown of Morehead, KY, local diners, television studios, Vegas casinos or any other place where people legally gather. In a democracy, politics needs to be in the places where people gather. Given that people gather in churches, why not churches?

But I also find almost any religious atmosphere to be kind of creepy. So I'm glad that major political events like debates aren't often held in places of worship.

Or casinos for that matter.

I'm also glad the forum is over because I thought John McCain came out ahead.

Why McCain Won. McCain had a simple formula for promoting himself as "the Republican candidate"--take the "conservative" line on every point, get out as many of his conservative talking points as he could, and relate anecdotes designed to make conservative talking points appealing to everyone.

Chuck Todd of NBC correctly emphasizes the extent to which McCain focused on getting out his talking points as opposed to answering Rick Warren's questions. When asked about three wise people he would listen to, McCain listed the conservative hero of the moment Gen. Petraeus as no. 1. When asked about when people acquired rights, McCain said "at conception" without hesitation and didn't bother to explain why. McCain was just as emphatic about wishing that none of the Supreme Court liberals were on the Supreme Court and gave the straight conservative line on "legislating from the bench" to explain why.

McCain also used his stories about being prisoner of war to significant effect in explaining himself as a person and illustrating conservative talking points.

Why was this effective? It was effective primarily because McCain was offering a cohesive conservative world view that he knew a large part of his audience would embrace. Peggy Noonan regrets that McCain and Obama moved around a lot as children and are consequently not grounded in regions. But, the impact of Limbaugh, Hannity, and Ann Coulter has been that conservatives identify themselves more and more as a national movement and less and less as having a Southern, Mountain, rural, or suburban perspective.

Conservative tribalism is a national phenomenon and John McCain was representing the whole conservative tribe in his performance at Saddleback. McCain didn't perform as an individual, he performed as a "conservative."

And he performed conservatism about as well as it can be done.

The Problem with Obama. It's not that Obama performed poorly. Obama was thoughtful and articulate and I'm sure many people in the mega-church audience left with a better appreciation for Obama's intelligence and sincerity. I know I came out of my viewing of the video liking Obama better as a person.

But for all of his intellectual architecture, Barack Obama's answers to Rick Warren's questions were essentially bridges "from nowhere and "to nowhere."

Let me illustrate with the question of abortion. When Obama first was asked about abortion, his response was that abortion was a "serious moral question." I have no problem with nodding to the sincerity of the pro-life position, but Obama also never explained why he took the pro-choice position that abortion is a fundamental matter of a woman's freedom. In fact, he did not articulate a single reason why anybody would be pro-choice or why anybody would think that the right to seek abortions is a fundamental human freedom as articulated in Roe v Wade.

This was a tremendous failing on Obama's part. Because Obama failed to champion his own views about abortion, Obama's response did not have the moral or political clarity of McCain's position and Obama failed to represent the moral integrity of the millions of Americans (like me) who have taken the pro-choice position, the millions of women who have received abortions, and the tens of thousands (at least) of medical personnel who have been involved in performing abortions.

By failing to champion the pro-choice position, Obama also did nothing to make his pro-choice position more appealing to anybody who is an undecided voter.

The same was the case when Obama explained how his decided to oppose the invasion of Iraq despite the fact that he thought it would hurt him politically. He did nothing beyond mentioning his suspicions about WMD to indicate why he opposed the invasion, why he still opposes the invasion, and why he thinks the invasion has been a disaster.

Why Obama decided not to advocate his own positions is "beyond my pay grade" as Obama would say. But Obama failed to represent his own position, failed to represent the "liberal tribe" across America, and failed to convince anyone outside the liberal tribe about the validity of his positions.

At the end of Obama's hour on stage, about all anyone could say about him was that he was a "smart, articulate guy."

That's not enough and it's not nearly as much as John McCain accomplished.

Conclusion. It's been known for some time that Obama is less effective in debate and townhall forums than he should be. One of the reasons why I thought he should take up McCain's challenge to do 10 townhall debates is that I thought Obama would get better at them as he moved along. At this point, Obama needs to improve his "debating" performance dramatically without the benefit of much practice. And he needs it pretty badly.

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