In a Stifling Town Hall Debate, the Tie Goes to the Front-Runner

There are two possible ways in which the Oct. 8 presidential debate will be interpreted by most of the media over the next several days – and both are favorable to Barack Obama.

The most likely outcome is a general press consensus that the town hall forum was roughly a draw; that both Obama and John McCain had their moments, but that neither delivered a memorable line or introduced any kind of game-changing wrinkle into the mix. This, obviously, would constitute good news for Obama, who entered the debate with his largest polling advantage since the summer conventions, and with the daily drip of devastating economic news seemingly draining the life from McCain’s campaign. In baseball, a tie goes to the runner; in political debates, it goes to the front-runner.

Then there’s the wild card interpretation, which hinges on whether the press decides (or whether Obama’s supporters can pressure the press to decide) to scrutinize the evening’s most cringe-inducing moment, when McCain sarcastically referred to Obama as “that one.” The specific context was a discussion of energy policy, with McCain noting that Obama had supported the 2005 energy bill, but his delivery of those two words smacked of bitterness, along with a type of condescension that could provoke much discussion. If anything, McCain’s comment called to mind Ross Perot’s oblivious references to the delegates at the 1992 N.A.A.C.P. convention as “you people.”

This was almost certainly just rhetorical sloppiness on the part of McCain, with no underlying racial implications, but in a debate that was otherwise devoid of interesting exchanges it stood as the one moment that might fuel cable news conversations in the days ahead – sort of the way Al Gore’s sighs belatedly emerged as the signature development of the first presidential debate of 2000. If dissections of McCain’s “that one” comment are prominent in news coverage these next few days, it would – obviously – also represent good news for Obama.

Otherwise, there really wasn’t much in the debate that either side can use to claim a clear-cut victory.

McCain, who hinted last week on the campaign trail that he’d adopt a more confrontational approach with Obama, made a concerted effort to play the aggressor. He repeatedly accused Obama of being a tax-hiker, of failing to reach across the aisle in the Senate, and – in an interesting twist – of being too bellicose in his foreign policy pronouncements.

“Senator Obama likes to talk loudly,” McCain said. “In fact, Senator Obama announced that he’d like to attack Pakistan.”

Obviously, McCain understood his predicament heading into the debate. Trailing in the polls, he needed to turn in a performance that would force swing voters to rethink their hardening assumptions about the race. Going on the attack is the most logical way to do this.

But the town hall format seemed to constrain McCain, who seemed to sense the discordance between the nature of the setting – a hall filled with earnest undecided voters, each armed with questions about matters of policy – and the idea of issuing blunt attacks on his opponent. So McCain awkwardly tried to mix jabs at Obama with friendly-seeming responses to the audience. The result often seemed mean-spirited.

For instance, when moderator Tom Brokaw tried to segue into the foreign policy section of the debate after Obama answered a question on health care, McCain – sensing that he was about to miss an opportunity to score points – interrupted to reiterate his criticism of Obama’s health care plan.

“Before we leave that,” he said, forcing a smile and fake laugh, “did we hear the size of the fine?” The utter silence from the crowd deflated the impact of McCain’s jab.

Obama, for his part, was as cool and calm as he was in the first debate, if maybe a little less passive. Early in the debate, he repeatedly invoked the term “middle class” in a way that suggested he had been programmed to do so, and he dutifully sought to link McCain to the Bush administration. Mostly, he limited himself to bland, reasonable-sounding statements, like his declaration that “it is absolutely true that I think it is important for the government to crack down on insurance companies that are cheating their customers.”

On a few occasions, Obama did show a flair for the counter-punch. After McCain derided him for being too bellicose, Obama shot back that “this is the guy who sang ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran’… I don’t think that’s speaking softly.’”

On points, there was no clear winner on Tuesday. If anything, the debate provided a compelling case that the town hall format ought to be scrapped in future presidential elections. Introduced in 1992, when Bill Clinton (who had built his I-feel-your-pain reputation in an endless series of town hall meetings during the New Hampshire primary) demanded it, the format has become a campaign institution. But the questions are often vague and the moderator (as was the case with Brokaw tonight) has little opportunity to press the candidates for specifics. More than anything else, Tuesday’s debate was lifeless.

Here’s hoping that, come 2012, we’ll have disabused ourselves of the notion that candidates asking actual questions to each other – a “debate,” in the old days – isn’t such a bad idea.

In a Stifling Town Hall Debate, the Tie Goes to the Front-Runner