White House ’08: Another one goes to the scorecards

Column by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

John McCain, it was said going into last night’s presidential debate, should have the advantage in the town-hall format, and he would need to exploit that advantage, it was also said, to be able to change the course of the ’08 presidential race.

Turns out the talk about McCain being the king of the town hall was so much hype, and not only did he not get his game-changer, but if anything, I think last night might have set him back a step.

I can’t fault him for not trying, at least early on. “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, and let people make those – be able to make those payments and stay in their homes,” McCain proposed in his answer to the first question, about the actions that need to be taken to reverse the ongoing economic downturn. “Is it expensive? Yes. But we all know, my friends, until we stabilize home values in America, we’re never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy. And we’ve got to give some trust and confidence back to America.”

The idea is not totally unique – Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton touted something very similar in her presidential-nomination campaign, and McCain’s own campaign website notes that it has many elements of a proposal from Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd and Democratic Congressman Barney Frank. And it may not play well to the conservative base in the GOP for the estimated cost, which I’m seeing reported in the $300 billion range, though some analysts are suggesting that it could be a lot more than that when all is said and done, on top of the $850 billion that was just approved for the Wall Street bailout, I should add, and I’m not sure how it would play to the populist image that McCain would like it to bring to the table for him, given that he could have pushed this in the face of the bailout as a less expensive and more effective alternative.

It would have also helped had McCain made the proposal the theme of the night, as Jim Gilmore did with his anti-bailout rhetoric in last week’s U.S. Senate debate, but he moved on after seeming to promise something new in terms of the race dynamic early on.

From there, McCain seemed to fizzle, in my view, relying far, far too much on his “my friends” crutch, uttering the word combo 18 times, according to my count from the transcript, and coming across almost like an angry old man, no offense to angry old men out there reading this. In that vein, he echoed his line from the first debate two weeks ago about Obama not understanding U.S. foreign policy. “Sen. Obama was wrong about Iraq and the surge, he was wrong about Russia when they committed aggression against Georgia. And in his short career, he does not understand our national security challenges. We don’t have time for on-the-job training, my friend,” McCain said last night, leading to this rejoinder from Obama. “It’s true, there are some things I don’t understand. I don’t understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 while Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us. That was Sen. McCain’s judgment, and it was the wrong judgment,” Obama began his response, one of his strongest moments of the night.

So angry old man didn’t work for McCain, not only in opening the door to that comeback, but also in the post-debate “who won?” polls, which went to Obama (CNN had it 54 percent favoring Obama as the winner to 30 percent for McCain, while CBS had it 39 percent for Obama and 27 percent for McCain). One criticism for Obama – he struggled in his response to a question about policy involving Russia, meandering through a thicket that will obviously need some work come Nov. 5. McCain failed to capitalize on that, though, in a followup question from Tom Brokaw that the former NBC News anchor set up for a one-word answer. “Ronald Reagan famously said that the Soviet Union was the ‘evil empire.’ Do you think that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an evil empire?” “Maybe,” McCain responded, and even as I know that the question wasn’t fairly presented to either candidate as a one-word-answer-type question, the foreign-policy wonk that is McCain had to do better than that.

Three down, including the vice-presidential debate, and one more to go, next Wednesday at 9 p.m. It’s McCain’s last chance to get back in the ’08 election game.


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