Ten Best: Presidential debate moments

by Jordan Green

A plan to bail out homeowners

Right out of the gate in the second presidential debate, at Belmont University in Nashville on Oct. 6, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain took a counterintuitive swing through Sen. Barack Obama’s wheelhouse by offering a proposal steeped in compassion and economic populism. “I would order the secretary of the treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes at the diminished value of those homes,” he said, “and let people be able to make those payments and stay in their homes.” Which candidate is the Democrat again? With the polls favoring Obama, McCain hopes you might forget.

McCain endorses Buffet for treasury secretary

Moderator Tom Brokaw asked the two candidates to say who they would appoint to the post of secretary of treasury. After belittling his media interlocutor with the dismissive “Not you, Tom,” McCain praised one of his opponent’s supporters. It was a wild gamble in an increasingly desperate campaign. Will voters see it as a signal of much-desired bipartisanship or read it as a concession that the Democrats have a better grasp of the fundamentals? “A supporter of Senator Obama’s is Warren Buffett,” McCain said. “He has already weighed in and helped stabilize some of the difficulties in the markets and with companies and corporations, institutions today.”

‘You may never even have heard of them’

A voter invokes a plight shared by millions of ordinary folks. Most politicians versed in their art, build a relationship. In a colossal fumble, McCain appeared to resort to condescension instead. “Well, senators, through this economic crisis, most of the people that I know have had a difficult time,” said a young African- American man named Oliver Clark. “And through this bailout package, I was wondering what it is that’s going to actually help those people out.” McCain responded by ripping into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, before suggesting most Americans, like their representatives in Congress, weren’t paying much attention. “But you know, one of the real catalysts, really the match that lit this fire was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” he said. “I’ll bet you, you may never even have heard of them before this crisis.”

Revisiting ’88

“How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got us into this global economic crisis?” asked a pissed-off Teresa Finch. Just as the questioner alluded to bipartisan responsibility for the financial meltdown, Obama proved that the Republicans have no monopoly on fumbling, evasive campaign rhetoric. He could have acknowledged that both parties, awash in corporate campaign contributions, colluded in policies that allowed people in the topincome brackets to become fabulously wealthy while most Americans staggered under growing personal debt and anemic wages. While he briefly conceded that “there is a lot of blame to go around,” most of his answer was devoted to bashing deficit spending under the Bush administration, and trying to link his opponent to an unpopular sitting president. And finally, he retreated to the main plank of 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis with this chestnut: “We’ve got to invest in college affordability.” Does anyone actually buy this hokum who’s not already in the tank?

‘That one’

Again, no one will have any idea whether this paid off until Nov. 4. McCain dropped a little colloquialism during an exchange about an energy bill passed by the Bush administration that was larded with gifts to Big Oil. The Republican candidate’s epithet for Obama conjured images of an old biddy at a family reunion, alluding to a troublesome great-nephew who keeps doing cannonballs long past the time when everybody thought it was funny. That one. “You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one,” McCain said. “You know who voted against it? Me.” Condescension or folksiness? You make the call.

Unadvisable detour to Delaware

You might wonder whether to chalk this one up to clumsiness or candor. McCain described the $5,000 healthcare tax credit he’s promised to every American, explaining that consumers could buy coverage from insurers out of state. It stimulates healthy competition — that’s the Republican faith. Obama took a swing at it. “It’s a problem to go shopping state by state, you know what insurance companies will do?” the Democratic nominee said. “They will find a state… where there are no requirements for you to get cancer screenings, where there are no requirements for you to have to get pre-existing conditions, and they will all set up shop there.” Unfortunately, there’s probably only one good example to illustrate the point. “That’s how in banking it works,” Obama said. “Everybody goes to Delaware, because they’ve got very — pretty loose laws when it comes to things like credit cards.” Anybody ever heard of Joe Biden, the senator from MBNA?

Resurrecting Warlike Obama

The Republican faithful won’t believe it for a moment, while the anti-imperialist left is convinced that Obama is a neocon dressed in a kaffieh. There are many action figures in the Obama playset. There’s Community Organizer Obama, Harvard Genius Obama, Inspiring Bipartisan Reformer Obama and now, just in time for Election Day… Warlike Obama. It’s part of a triedand-true formula called “neutralize hostile voters by making them confuse you with your adversary.” It’s the Democratic corollary to McCain’s bailout package for struggling homeowners. “We will kill bin Laden; we will crush al Qaida,” a stern Obama told the voters in Nashville. “That has to be our biggest national security priority.”

‘Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran’

True to form, McCain tried to paint his younger opponent as wet behind the ears on the somber affairs of war and state, invoking his hero Teddy Roosevelt and his famous saying “walk softly and carry a big stick.” “Senator Obama likes to talk loudly,” McCain charged. Obama, in turn, showed some of the fire his supporters have been begging for. “Senator McCain, this is the guy who sang, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,’ who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don’t think is an example of ‘speaking softly.’ This is the person who, after we had — we hadn’t even finished Afghanistan, where he said, ‘Next up, Baghdad.’”

‘Not going to telegraph my punches’

Even though there is little to no daylight between the two candidates’ positions on Pakistan or, for that matter, Iran, McCain is going to keep hammering Obama on the most minute of differences in emphasis and the most minor technicalities because foreign policy is his perceived strength, and he can use his age as an asset. No matter that it’s a silly argument, it sounded good on television when McCain said he was the one who could be counted on to bag bin Laden. And he probably scored some votes out of it. “I’ll get him no matter what, and I know how to do it,” the flinty old Arizonan said. “But I’m not going to telegraph my punches, which is what Senator Obama did.”

Withholding the hand of bipartisanship

Following the debate, the candidates waded into the audience to reinforce their rhetoric with one-on-one interaction. Barack Obama was seen bonding with a young African-American man, and wife Michelle appeared equally adept at establishing the human connection. The CNN broadcast showed Cindy McCain wandering onto the floor, and shadowing her husband. The two presidential candidates appeared on the verge of crossing paths, and the camera shows John McCain reaching across to tap Barack Obama on the shoulder. Obama, in turn, reaches to grasp McCain’s hand, but his rival gestures for Obama to shake his wife’s hand and then begins to wave to the audience. Deliberate snub or clumsy social skills? Only one person knows for sure.