Goldwater and Kennedy, or Lincoln and Douglas?

You’ve probably heard that McCain’s campaign challenged Obama to do a series of town hall debates starting next week. It’s an interesting idea, down to McCain’s suggestion they fly together to the first one (but I gotta warn McCain–I don’t think Michelle will let Obama fly on the SugarMomma Express, not even if McCain proposes it in the interest of civility).

What’s more interesting to me is the imagery both campaigns are appealing to with their competing proposals. McCain pitched the town halls as a repeat of town halls that Goldwater and Kennedy planned to do–no doubt appealing to Obama’s self-conscious appropriation of the Kennedy legacy, not to mention McCain’s fanciful notion that he inherited the Goldwater legacy, and not just his seat.

In 1963, Senator Barry Goldwater and President John F. Kennedy agreed to make presidential campaign history by flying together from town to town and debating each other face-to-face on the same stage. In Goldwater’s words, those debates "would have done the country a lot of good." Unfortunately, with President Kennedy’s untimely death, Americans lost the rare opportunity of witnessing candidates for the highest office in the land discuss civilly and extensively the great issues at stake in the election. What a welcome change it would be were presidential candidates in our time to treat each other and the people they seek to lead with respect and courtesy as they discussed the great issues of the day, without the empty sound bites and media-filtered exchanges that dominate our elections. It is in the spirit of President Kennedy’s and Senator Goldwater’s agreement, in the spirit of the politics of change, and to do our country good, that I invite you to join me in participating in town hall meetings across the country to discuss the most important issues facing Americans. I also suggest we fly together to the first town hall meeting as a symbolically important act embracing the politics of civility.

(Incidentally, no one, thus far, has created a media firestorm suggesting that McCain has wished ill on Obama by referring to JFK’s assassination.)

McCain’s pitch for a town hall format, of course, is an attempt to get Obama on his–McCain’s–preferred turf. Small venues, pollsters pick the audience, unscripted exchanges. It’s an attempt to avoid the disaster of the green ghoul speech from last night.

Obama might like unscripted exchanges, but he was not about to allow McCain to push such preferential terms for himself. So in response, they proposed the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

As Barack Obama has said before, the idea of joint town halls is appealing and one that would allow a great conversation to take place about the need to change the direction of this country. We would recommend a format that is less structured and lengthier than the McCain campaign suggests, one that more closely resembles the historic debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. But, having just secured our party’s nomination, this is one of the many items we will be addressing in the coming days and look forward to discussing it with the McCain campaign,

Of course, Abraham Lincoln is the other president Obama self-consciously fashions himself after, going back to his campaign kick-off in Springfield. Also note–the Hillary campaign tried to goad Obama into additional debates in April by pitching a Lincoln-Douglas debate, a format that would have served her well.

But a Lincoln-Douglas debate, a public celebration of policy discussion, a chance to orate with large audiences, that would seem to favor Obama (particularly if McCain continues to forget the difference between Sunni and Shia).

This could get mighty interesting.

20 replies
    • bmaz says:

      Please, for the love of all things Beamish, stop and retract any possible analogy of McCain to Goldwater! Lest I start in on the Roidney is the same as Brady….

  1. BoxTurtle says:

    I think it’ll be more like Holmes/Clooney. Obama will beat McBush like an ugly stepchild in ANY venue, scripted or not. Heck, even FOX would have trouble coming up with questions the McBush could answer without hurting his chances.

    Boxturtle (Mr Obama, how long have you been black with a funny sounding name?)

    • bmaz says:

      Ooops. OK. Heh heh, should have pre-warned me; you know how touchy I am on that one… I love the Pats (still can’t have Atari Bigby!).

  2. jdmckay says:

    I say ”bring ’em on”.

    I’d let the candidates pose the question as well… maybe a few stipulations. For instance, no more than every other Obama question may deal w/his (ex) pastor. And no notes (”what’s the difference between a Sunniyahmi and a Shia, John?”) John.

  3. BargainCountertenor says:

    Puhlease, please, please let McCain go for this idea.

    In an open debate format (as opposed to the moderated press conferences that pass for ’debates’ today) Obama will mop the floor with McCain. And McCain’s handlers have to know that.

    Their guy has serious trouble thinking on his feet.


  4. Ishmael says:

    The devil is in the details of McCain’s proposal. I can’t for a minute imagine that McCain would let himself go on live TV with Obama without Tim Russert or some other reliable shill to rescue him from some fuckup, or pound Obama with Hamas/Pastor questions if McCain was looking doddering or (we can hope!) loses his temper. I’m sure McCain would want all the questions from the focus-group audience would be pre-screened as well.

  5. bmaz says:

    Probably, but keep in mind that McCain is better at debates than he is at speechifying; and Obama is better at speechifying than he is at debates (Clinton arguably beat him in all the head to heads save for, maybe, one).

  6. Ishmael says:

    If we do get McCain to agree to Lincoln-Douglas, how’s this for a real debate topic, with McCain supporting the motion? It has the advantage of being in McCain’s own words too!

    “BIRT the United States keep a military presence in Iraq for up to 100 years.”

    • bmaz says:

      Now the true Lincoln Douglas debates, which were really one dude giving a long speech/soliloquy then the other dude; back and forth like that, would be to Obama’s great advantage. A standard debate, or even the candidates askig questions is a lot closer though.

  7. emptywheel says:

    Agree that Obama would not necessarily win any debate with McCain. Hillay would have, surely. But I do think he will win a Lincoln-Douglas debate because McCain’s policy knowledge (unlike Hillary’s) is skin-deep. Imagine Obama schooling McCain on Iranian politics?

    Think of it as the worst student at the navy academy going against one of the best at Harvard law.

    • Ishmael says:

      Agreed – remember that the press anointed Bush as the winner of the debates against Gore because he exceeded expectations and didn’t sigh, and didn’t bore us with “fuzzy math”. And the press gatekeepers will undoubtedly say that the public doesn’t have the attention span for Lincoln-Douglas type debates, that they need the press corpse to explain everything to them. It is of course in the interest of the establishment press to dumb down the process and patronize the audience – but in addition to Lincoln-Douglas, there is the example of the election of 1896, where the primary issue was the gold standard vs silver coinage, and the effect of monetary policy, deflation and distribution of national wealth. People were very much engaged in that debate, and it directly affected their interests, even in an era where there was a much lower level of literacy and educational accomplishment than today. Russert and the rest of the Villagers would deem such a debate “BORRINNNGGGGG!!”, but I think the country would be enthralled.

      • Ishmael says:

        …of course, in 1896, the better orator, Bryan, lost to McKinley, who outspent him 10-1 with the help of Karl Rove’s hero, Mark Hanna.

      • Leen says:

        Would sure like to witness Amy Goodman moderate a debate. Tired of the Russerts, Matthews, Olbermans, and Mitchells.

        How about, Pat Buchanan and Rachel Maddow as moderators.

  8. scribe says:

    OK, this is a non-starter from Obama’s viewpoint for a couple reasons:

    1. I only could stomach a minute or two of McCain’s Kenner speech last night. The one thing I did catch, which stood out, was his declaration that the primary was over and the general election campaign had begun. Given his problems with the FEC (about gaming the system of financing he helped create), if McCain can get away with going into the general campaign – by going all Lincoln-Douglas with Obama, then the issue of his liability re public financing for the primary goes away. If, OTOH, Obama (with HRC’s help by not immediately conceding) has to contend with an extended primary season, then McCain’s primary financing limits still apply. And he can’t support a campaign within those limits.

    2. The underdog always is the one who challenges the other to a debate. By challenging Obama, McCain is recognizing that he is behind. Obama should not give McCain the benefit of the same stage, raising him to the same level.

    3. McCain is going on broke, and needs the free media a series of debates would give him. I had posted a number of comments earlier in the Dem primary, over at TalkLeft, my analysis that if HRC and Obama kept on debating all the way to the convention, they would benefit immensely (assuming they could keep it nice. Given the way it turned out on the nice front, maybe I was asking for too much maturity and in-depth seeing on the part of the supporters. But, that’s neither here nor there.). The benefits would have been their controlling the media narrative – as long as the candidates were debating, the media were not in control of framing the candidates. They would have gotten the benefit of free media; even if it killed him, Olbermann, et als. would have to have covered another debate.
    All these points obtain as to an Obama-McCain series of debates, but in reverse.

    4. McCain’s base is the Media Establishment. They would turn every trick in their books to help him in a series of debates.

    5. McCain’s already lied about his and Obama’s alleged committments to public financing. He just makes crap up to suit the moment, so why give him the benefit of a national stage. The most effective way to debate McCain, is by running ads of his various positions over the years. And, since that can (at this point in the campaign) still be done through 527s and such, why not do it that way?

    6. Obama talked to Lieberman in the Senate today, using body language which indicated he was pinning Lieberman against the wall while speaking at him. I have no doubt he was dealing with the Lieberman problem ab initio – but why go up there against McCain and then let his butt-buddy Joe come and tag-team you in the post-debate commentary.

    And, two more things, a little off topic.
    1. Someone needs to tell Harold Ford to STFU if he wants to have any future in or around politics. He’s a loser, and being used to put a black face before the electorate speaking Republican talking points, so as to create cognitive dissonance in the crowd for whom they all look alike.

    2. Where’s the video of the CPAC ”four more years” chanting? We need to see that again, and again.

  9. 4jkb4ia says:

    Site unfubarred! Hooray!

    I think scribe makes some good points about the campaign finance issue. However, I think these debates would be a good thing because people would see the contrast in philosophy between the two candidates. If the McCain campaign controls the discourse they control how they position the “maverickness” of the candidate and Obama may only keep saying “Bush’s 3rd term”. The debates also provide Obama the opportunity to speak about a range of domestic policies.

  10. 4jkb4ia says:

    I am trying to say that these debates could be a real opportunity to place the candidates side by side on a greater range of issues than happens in a standard debate where they are constrained to be the party standard bearers. If this does not happen it builds the Democratic brand anyhow.

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