Saturday, August 23, 2008

Some Biden Advantages

A lot of the commentary about Joe Biden that I've seen since Saturday's announcement of Biden as Obama's VP choice is nonsense that reflects a poor understanding of how American politics works.

Biden No Wise Man. Most importantly, Joe Biden is not going to be Obama's "wise man" on foreign policy in the way that Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice have been for Bush. There's a big difference between Obama and Bush. Obama knows a lot about the world and is interested in finding out more. Bush knew nothing and was proud of it.

If Obama is elected, he'll have a Secretary of State, a National Security Adviser, and other foreign policy advisers. Obama might listen to advisers, but my guess is that people will have influence to the extent to which they pose ways to make Obama's own ideas workable. The question about Biden's "influence" will not be how much he knows about foreign policy, but how much he's in sync with Obama's basic instincts. But it isn't likely that Obama and Biden will be in sync. Obama's basic instinct is toward self-control while Biden has trouble with self-discipline. That will make it tough for Biden to be much of an influence.

Biden's "Pennsylvania Roots." Another myth. Biden isn't going to get any more votes for Obama in Pennsylvania because he was born in Scranton (die-hard Republican country by the way) than if he had never seen Pennsylvania. Biden's family moved from Scranton to Delaware in 1952 for godssakes.

The reason that Biden isn't going to help Obama in Pennsylvania is that being from Delaware almost guarantees that he's not going to be any better known in Pennsylvania than anywhere else. Because Delaware borders on the Philadelphia area, news from Delaware can't filter through the enormous clutter of "Philadelphia news" to other regions in Pennsylvania. People in Scranton are much more in tune with New Jersey and Binghamton, NY than they are with Delaware.

Biden's Catholicism. Biden's Catholicism isn't going to help him with Catholic voters any more than John Kerry's did. The reason is that Biden is pro-choice on abortion and that his pro-choice stance will cause controversy which will drown out any sense of Catholic identity. That of course is unless McCain nominates Romney (Mormon) or Lieberman (Jewish). Then, the question of religious identity will be up in the air in unpredictable ways.

The Biden Advantage. But at the end of the day, I think Biden is a plus for Obama. Anything Biden says critically about McCain will be immediately amplified into the public realm through the blogs, cable media, and mainstream media. Given that Biden has a lot of good one-liners about Bush foreign policy, Iraq, and McCain's general recklessness, there's a chance that Biden's comments can dominate several news cycles to the advantage of the Obama campaign. If Obama let's Biden talk, I think Biden will be a 1-3 point plus for the Obama ticket.

Biden has other advantages for Obama as well. In a certain way, selecting Biden makes Obama look "safe" on race. Biden has made some racially inappropriate remarks (calling him "articulate" and "clean") about Obama, but Obama was so little concerned with this kind of petty stereotyping that he was willing to nominate Biden anyway. That's something that could reassure white swing-voters that Obama isn't a "resentful" kind of black person and make them more inclined to vote for him.

Nominating Biden also helps nail down an Obama advantage on maturity. Although Biden himself if not that much of a grown-up, nominating a "heavy hitter" makes Obama look even more like a grown-up. One of the curious things about the presidential campaign is how Barack Obama's almost preternatural maturity and self-control are playing out. It would have taken extremely outsized confidence for Obama to choose Hillary (especially with the Bill problem), but it still took a great deal of confidence for Obama to choose Biden. Given that John McCain is not a particularly mature guy (given his wise guy antics, temper tantrums, etc.), selecting Biden might help Obama open up a maturity gap.

Given that it's a close race, any advantage that Obama can find is significant and Biden helps.

Biden's Effect on McCain

McCain still has to choose a VP nominee. I imagine that McCain will want someone who can project the same foreign policy gravitas as Biden during the VP debate. That should play in Lieberman's favor.

Biden: What a Great Statesman!!!

So, it's Joe Biden after all.

That's excellent.

Over the last ten years, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware has grown into one of the few statesmen we have in the United States, and he'll provide a striking contrast to the steroid fueled, hot-headed warmongering of John McCain.

Unlike Mitt Romney, Joe Biden is a real human being instead of a Stepford android. That fact alone will make Biden come off better in the VP debate.

Finally, Joe Biden is a fine campaigner who's been winning elections since the early 70's. He has a very clean and articulate way of speaking that will create a great deal of good feeling for Obama out on the stump.

Biden is also a veteran of the television news show circuit and will be a strong surrogate for Obama.

Joe Biden--A great American and a great choice by Obama.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Is It Biden? Where Can I Go to Slit My Wrists?

There's an ABC News report that Secret Service personnel are on their way to start giving protection to Joe Biden as Obama's VP nominee.

I hope it's not true.

Talk about "Old School." Joe Biden's politics is pre-Belushi let alone Will Farrell. Biden's also a free-wheeling bloviator. Actually I think the word was invented with Biden in mind. Anyway, Biden seems to have taken lessons from Bill Clinton on how to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

As African-American Political Pundit points out, Biden is especially bad on race.

Biden's also one of the super-insecure guys who can't get over the fact that he doesn't have an Ivy League degree even though the University of Delaware is an excellent college.

That got him in trouble back in 1988 when he bragged about being as smart as anyone right before he got caught cribbing from a Neil Kinnock speech.

In other words, Biden wasn't even smart enough to steal from a really good speaker.

Well, tonight I'll do the equivalent of slitting my wrists.

But tomorrow, I'll reboard the Obama bus and start talking about what a statesman Biden has become over the last ten years.

I still hope it's Hillary though.

RSI's Burgeoning Musical Career

A magical moment in RSI's musical career. After Mrs. RSI and I agreed that she would make dinner tonight, she asked if I would play piano while she cooked.

Not bad for an intermediate piano player.

RSI Delusion: Killer Ads for Obama

As someone who writes a lot, I have to admit that there are some delusional elements involved in writing. The biggest delusion is Malcolm Gladwell's fault. After the publication of The Tipping Point, every minor event is portrayed as a critical moment that can result in rearranging the whole structure of American politics, the Middle East, and the world in general. Even writers who haven't read the book now suffer from the delusion that EVERY SINGLE MOMENT IS UNBELIEVABLY IMPORTANT TO THE FATE OF THE UNIVERSE. Like a lot of delusions, the tipping point delusion threatens to kills us as a result of exhaustion.

But there are less tiring delusions as well. Political reporters often suffer from the "consultant delusion" that they can provide politicians advice on how to conduct campaigns. But unless their names are Karl Rove and James Carville, reporters have never been consultants for political campaigns and they don't have any idea of the basics of political campaigning. Most of what reporters seem to do is interview the campaign staff people who protect candidates from reporters. Just as sports writers don't know the basics of their games, political writers don't know anything about developing a message, organizing events, securing endorsements, fundraising, putting together a "ground game," or running an ad campaign. They don't have access to internal polling either.

But that doesn't mean reporters can't do ersatz consulting and they do a lot of it.

Bloggers like myself are even worse. We're under the delusion that we're political journalists even though most of us don't even do any of the background interviewing that "real" journalits do. Despite only having access to secondary or tertiary sources of information, blogs like this one are bursting with advice, commentary, and judgment. Needless to say, it's all very democratic and I often comfort myself with the thought that I do have a Ph.D. in political science from a reputable school (UNC-Chapel Hill). But I also have to admit that much of what I'm writing is speculative at best and that the specter of delusion haunts blogging in general.

But ploughing ahead despite the risk of delusion, I want to offer advice to the Obama campaign on their television ads. Now that the story of McCain's four separate properties with seven houses is out, Obama has a great opportunity to launch some attack ads on McCain's energy policies. One of the things that McCain and the Republicans are recommending is that our country build 45 nuclear power plants. But the power with nuclear power plants has always been where to put them. Given Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the terrorist threat, and the problems with processing nuclear wastes, nobody but nobody wants a nuclear power plant built anywhere near them.

So, why couldn't the Obama campaign do attack ads at John McCain's various homes asking McCain if he wants a nuclear power plant next to one of Cindy's houses? They could do "man and woman on the street" interviews asking neighbors or actors posing as neighbors whether they want a nuclear power plant nearby. The Obama campaign could even do some sort of Michael Moore schtick with an interviewer searching a neighborhood for anybody who would want a nuclear power plant built in their back yard.

Yes, I know that it's delusional to think that I could give Obama's ad people advice on their ad campaigns.

But there it is.

My Gut Says Clinton

Yesterday, I was talking with a student about Obama's vp pick when it hit me that all the secrecy might mean that the pick will be Hillary Clinton. The idea is that if Obama were going to pick Kaine, Sebelius, or Bayh, his campaign would have leaked more information about the pick as a way to increase their national name recognition.

My gut says Hillary.

But my gut has been known to be wrong.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Obama v McCain: Is the Slime War Coming?

The election fight between John McCain and Barack Obama is getting hot and it looks like both candidates are preparing for a two-month "slime war" leading up the election.

Let the slime begin.

After Obama's poorly received showing at the Saddleback Forum, the Obama campaign decided to get tough and came out with ads portraying John McCain as an out of touch plutocrat who doesn't know how many houses he owns. The Obama campaign could mine McCain's wealth for these kinds of attack ads from here to November. It's bad enough that McCain married into Cindy McCain's family wealth rather than earning any of it himself. But McCain also dumped his injured and disfigured first wife to hook up with Cindy's money in the first place.

Talk about personal dishonor. All of this not only makes John McCain look not only like an out of touch plutocrat but a pampered sleazeball as well.

Now that McCain's running as the candidate of the Republican establishment, Obama could attack him more for his connections with Bush, Cheney, Rove, Charlie Black, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of the incompetent warmongerers. Today, Obama had an ad out in the Atlanta market slamming McCain for his links to Jack Abramoff friend Ralph Reed. Obama's people could literally put out hundreds of ads on that score.

But the McCain people aren't going to be outdone on attack ads. When are the Republicans ever outdone on personal attacks?

The McCain campaign responded quickly with their own ads about Obama connections with 60's radical William Ayres and Chicago real estate scammer Tony Rezko. In fact, the McCain campaign seemed to be waiting for just this opportunity to "go nuclear" on Obama. With Obama now engaging in "personal attacks," the McCain people feel authorized to start hammering away on Jeremiah Wright, Ayres, Rezko, and any other shady connections they can dredge up.

It'll be interesting to see how the looming slime war plays out. My impression is that Obama has the advantage. If one adds up the personal liabilities, McCain liabilities far outweigh Obama's. Given that Cindy McCain is his wife and that John McCain has benefitted enormously from her wealth, the problems with McCain's status as a pampered sleazeball have more significance than Obama's problems with black nationalist minister Jeremiah Wright.

The same thing concerns McCain's connections with the Republican establishment vs Obama's connections with William Ayres and Tony Rezko. Abramoff, Reed, Black, Limbaugh, Rove, and the rest of the figures Obama could attack are all nationally-known figures who play or have played significant roles in Republican Party politics and John McCain's campaign. Because the same can't be said for Ayres and Rezko, it will be much easier for Obama to score points than McCain.

But is Obama going to sustain several rounds of attacks on McCain? The McCain people have already drawn the line in the sand. Given that Obama has attacked McCain, McCain is now going to go all out on attacking Obama and will be daring Obama to respond in kind.

That way McCain will be able to criticize Obama for being "weak" if he doesn't respond with more attacks on McCain and criticize Obama for giving up his "new politics" if he does respond.

In my opinion, Obama has to dive into "the slime war" and attack McCain with all the moderate, post-partisan gusto he can muster.

There's lots of testimony showing that voters don't like "negative campaigning" and "politics as usual." But voters are even suspicious of candidates they view as "weak" and Obama would be perceived as a weak politician if he decides to back down.

Given that such a widespread perception of weakness would kill his candidacy, Obama needs to ratchet up his attacks on McCain.

Once you start attacking, you can't stop.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The RSI Perspective on VP's

Clueless on Obama. I have to own up to the fact that I don't have much of an idea concerning Obama's VP selection and don't have much of an idea of how he's thinking about the issue either.

Sebelius, Biden, Tom Kaine, Evan Bayh--they've all objectionable. Sebelius, Kaine, and Bayh are all relatively non-partisan moderates. Outside Sebelius being a female candidate, who's going to get excited about any of them.

As for Biden, talk about the politics of the past! Biden peaked in 1988. Maybe Biden would be better than the faceless moderates, but that's not saying much.

As a "moderate with a face," Obama obviously is not thinking of other moderates as "faceless."

So I'm clueless.

But I'm hardly alone in my cluelessness.

McCain and the Lieberman Factor. It's easier with McCain. I'm quite certain that John McCain wants Joe Lieberman to be his vice-presidential candidate and is deciding whether he's willing to take the Republican Party blowback from nominating Lieberman. If McCain decides that he can get away with nominating Lieberman, I think it will be Lieberman. If McCain decides to go with a conventional Republican, it will probably be Tim Pawlenty. I can see Mitt Romney as having a chance as well.

But it's all about Lieberman now.

Loose Change for Hummer

China's Hunan Changfeng Motor backed out of any effort to buy GM's Hummer division. For some reason, they saw "limited potential" to market the gas guzzling monstrosity.

MSN claims that Hummer is worth $1.5 billion on the open market, but author Kim Peterson neglects to add that it would only be worth 1.5 bill to companies that want to lose a lot of money.

There's about 95 cents in loose change in my pocket. That's about what I'd pay for the whole Hummer operation.

And I'd probably still lose money.

Otis Hensley: Where Did All the Fun Go?

Otis Hensley Jr sits in a jail cell in Harlan, KY, imprisoned for the crime of being a jerk.

At least that's Hensley's side of the story.

Hensley was shopping at Don's Supersaver when he encountered a grandmother and two girls, ages 11 and 13.

According to Hensley, "one of the girls turned around and looked at me and smiled."

Then, Hensley responded by saying to the grandmother: "Maam, do you want to trade them girls for a good fattening hog?"

Hey, what a cut-up! Great sense of humor! Nothing funnier than trading a couple of girls for a very large pig. They do it all the time in foreign countries don't they?

Hensley claims he had already pulled that joke at the bank that day--and nobody objected.

But the grandmother did object and she went the girls' father who objected even more and Hensley ended up sitting in jail charged with "first-degree unlawful transaction with a minor, a Class B felony that can carry a sentence of 10 years to 20 years."


I imagine the grandmother has a different story.

But even on Hensley's account, the world isn't quite as tolerant of treating girls as the equivalent of pigs, cattle, and chickens anymore.

And that's a good thing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fretting About Obama

There was a lot of fretting about Obama over at liberal news blog Talking Points Memo (TPM) today. Editor Josh Marshall thinks that Obama's basic message of "change" and "hope" has been diluted or is otherwise not having the impact it used to have. He wants Obama to have a simple message that can be boiled down to one sentence. Of course, Obama had already boiled everything down to two words once--hope and change. However, Marshall thinks that Obama needs another memorable and simplistic formula.

Others worry that Obama has not done anything to define McCain and would like to see Obama portray McCain as an "out of touch plutocrat," a "dangerous warmonger," or the kind of person who would "say anything to be president."

The fact that McCain is all three of these things should help.

I'm fretting about Obama as well, but the bottom line is that Obama is being himself. Obama has always talked about the need for an uplifting "new politics" that gets away from the intense partisanship of the left and right. And like or not, Obama is getting away from many of the basic modes of partisan politics. Obama is not making a determined effort to define McCain with negative ads and he's discouraging third-party ads attacking McCain. Likewise, Obama's not employing aggressive surrogates to either attack McCain or defend himself. He's not really associating himself very closely with Democratic constituencies like African-Americans, Hispanics, white progressives, unions, or gay rights activists.

Instead of promoting divisions, Obama's promoting a "One America" politics of unity and he's doing so primarily through grass-roots organizing for his campaign. I was very sceptical of this kind of "post-partisan" politics during the primaries and that's why I supported Hillary Clinton.

But it's a little late to be sceptical now.

Obama is the Democratic Party's nominee and he is the only hope to keep John McCain and the Republican Party out of the presidency for the next four years.

Instead of fretting, people on the left should be pitching in to participate in Obama's grassroots campaigning and promote the virtues of Obama's approach to politics.

And hope to hell it works.

Thomas Sowell Understands McCain

Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell says that American foreign policy is to "speak loudly and carry a little stick." Actually, that's pretty close to John McCain's policy on Georgia which is to "speak as loudly as possible without carrying a stick at all."

Monday, August 18, 2008

GOP's Low Standards for McCain

GOP spinmeisters are humping the heck out of how great John McCain did at the Saddleback forum on Saturday night. Actually, I also think McCain did well because he hit his usual talking points and stump anecdotes in an effective manner.

But it's not like hitting your talking points is THAT big of a deal for a candidate like John McCain who's been running for president for the last twenty months.

But here's National Review editor Rich Lowry salivating in the New York Sun:
Within the first 15 minutes, McCain had established a moral seriousness stemming from his long experience as a national leader and his conduct in Vietnam as a POW that Obama simply couldn't match. Throughout the night, McCain brought up Iraq, al Qaeda and the Georgia crisis, while Obama was determinedly inward-looking. Asked whether he thinks evil exists, Obama cited Darfur, then street crime in the United States. McCain invoked Osama bin Laden.
Lowry's comments are fundamentally a reflection of the low standards that the right has for presidents. In the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, George Bush was given considerable credit for "beating expectations" any time he got his facts straight and worked his way though his talking points. The media liked Bush even though they didn't think he was knowledgeable and gave him points for showing almost any kind of knowledge.

The same was the case here.

The idea behind the Saddleback forum was for the religious public to get a better idea of how Barack Obama and John McCain what kind of persons they were apart from their talking points and how they thought about issues. That's a lot of what Obama did. He talked about himself as a person, his religious faith, his big controversial decisions, and his weaknesses as a human being. People who listened to Obama came away with a better idea of Obama's capacity for dispassionate evaluation of himself, the people around him, and various kinds of issues. They also came away with a sense of the kind of president he would be.

But McCain changed the game and used the Saddleback forum as a way to present his standard talking points and anecdotes to a national audience. Unless McCain has morphed into a version of his talking points, he didn't give any indication of what kind of person he is or how he thinks about any kinds of issues. McCain toed the conservative party line on every point and expressed no self-doubt about doing so even though he has recently changed his positions on a variety of issues like Bush's tax cuts and immigration.

For a conservative like Rich Lowry, stating the right-wing party line is the most important qualification that anyone could have for president.

But its a very low standard.

To the contrary, Obama showed himself as a whole person rather than an extension of his talking points. That's what gives Obama a chance to serve effectively as president of the whole country instead of just being president of his party.

The Introspective Basis of the McCain Campaign

It's beginning to look more and more like the McCain campaign is using introspection as the basis for the criticisms of Barack Obama.

For example, the McCain campaign knew they were getting into racist territory when they put out their provocative "Celeb" ad with Obama juxtaposed to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Of course, it didn't bother them much. Republicans have been running race-baiting presidential campaigns since the 1960's.

What differentiates the McCain campaign is that they decided that they would gain a further advantage from Republican traditions of race-baiting by accusing Obama of being the one to play"the race card." But senior McCain staffers like Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt couldn't have pursued the "race-card" theme is they hadn't been aware of their own race-baiting.

There's also the celebrity angle.

There's no politician in American who loves being a celebrity more than John McCain. He's appeared on Saturday Night Live and late-night talk shows as well as cable comedy shows. McCain was also a regular on shout-fests like like Crossfire and appeared more than any other politician on Sunday morning news shows like "Meet the Press."

One of the main reasons why the McCain campaign has ridiculed Obama for being the "no. 1 global celebrity" with so much relish is McCain's awareness of the extent to which he himself values being a celebrity.

In other words, McCain's criticism of Obama for being a celebrity was born out of introspection.

Today, McCain moved on to Obama's foreign policy positions. John McCain has shown a willingness to say almost anything to reassure the conservative base of the Republican Party that he's one of them. Among the many topics on which McCain has reversed himself are Bush tax cuts, the "agents of intolerance" in the religious right, right-wing judges like Samuel Alito, immigration policy, torture, and off-shore drilling.

No doubt McCain's going to change more of his positions as the election campaign becomes more heated.

Given the burning intensity of McCain's ambition, it should be no surprise that McCain is accusing Obama of adopting positions solely to further his presidential ambitions. Speaking about Obama's position on Iraq, McCain claims that:
“Behind all of these claims and positions by Senator Obama lies the ambition to be president . . . What’s less apparent is the judgment to be commander in chief. And in matters of national security, good judgment will be at a premium in the term of the next president.

McCain was criticizing Obama's vote against war funding in 2007. But Obama had opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. Thus, his vote against war funding was perfectly consistent with his views of the war.

When McCain talks about "ambition to be president" as driving Obama's positions on policy issues, he's really talking about himself and projecting onto Obama.

However, if McCain looks at himself closely enough, he'll find that his criticisms of Obama are an extremely good guide to why John McCain himself should not be president.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

McCain's Version of the "Winona Ryder Defense"

You know, I was willing to give John McCain a break on the accusations that he knew Rick Warren's questions in advance for Saturday night's Saddleback Forum.

My though was so what if McCain heard some of Obama's answers while he was in his limo on the way to the event? Warren informed both Obama and McCain of his first two questions. McCain probably already knew what his first two responses would be anyway.

But then, I saw the reaction of McCain's spokeswoman Nicole Wallace.

“The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of
war, cheated is outrageous.”
Talk about projecting guilt.

That's the POW version of Winona Ryder's defense at her shoplifting trial in 2002. According to Dahlia Lithwick of Slate:

Both the crime and the trial were about looking like a celebrity. The movie star had already dropped $3,000 that day on clothing and accessories, yet still shoplifted a $140 hair band and a $750 thermal shirt (because God knows, she couldn't go pay $16 for them at Target). So her attorney trotted out the people-who-look-like-her-don't-take-stuff defense (emphasis mine), alternating it with the people-who-don't-look-like-her-persecute-people-who-look-like-her-because-they're-jealous defense.

Like Winona Ryder, Wallace was arguing that John McCain didn't cheat because "people like John McCain don't cheat."

That sounds like a confession of guilt to me.

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.