What Price Civility? Presidential Debate Number 2 Turns Into a Snoozer 


I. The Pre-Game:

Talk about cross-purposes.

In an interview not long before presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama faced each other down at Belmont University in the second of two nationally televised debates, Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen opined that what he thought was needed above all else was a "greater civility" than had been evident in the first debate two weeks ago in Oxford, Mississsippi.

That was when, among other things, McCain had refused even to look at his opponent, much less extend any amenities to speak of. Bredesen had meanwhile gone so far as to conduct a public "Seminar on Civility" Monday at Belmont, one in which he, co-host Howard Baker, the former senator, and various other worthies made the case for more sweetness and light, or at least reasonability, in power-seeking.

7th District congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, on the other hand, thought that what was needed was a greater "aggressiveness," especially from McCain. "He needs to pin Obama down on his relationship with William Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn ..." Etc., etc, through a long string of radicals from the '60s and '70s, concluding with "Nikita Khrushchev."

Actually, she didn't include the late former Soviet premier in her list, but the rest of the bunch she mentioned, including the two founders of the Weather Underground that she started with, were a pretty formidable lot of nasties.

Senator Bob Corker, presented with the two alternatives, broke the tie: Aggressiveness? "Naw, I think that leadership is what people are looking for in this debate. In difficult times like this, people are looking for someone who can lead them through. Someone with a steady hand. Leadership, steadiness, and, okay, civility. A lot of yapping back and forth is not what people are looking for at a time like this."

Still and all, McCain is, as he has proved in recent weeks and in that first debate, something of a gut-fighter. And he can read the polls. He knows he's behind. Whatever the vote-count among the dignitaries in the Volunteer State or elsewhere, it seemed doubtful, as the contenders waited for the bell, that McCain could reconcile himself to a passive role in this crucial second debate.

As McCain has so often said, he has very rarely won the Miss Congeniality Award.

II. The Debate, Blow-by-ZZZZZ-Blow:

After their introduction by host Tom Brokaw, candidates McCain and Obama greet each other cordially at center stage. This time, unlike the case in Oxford, McCain managed a genuine smile.

So far, civility. The aggressiveness had a chance to get going from the first answer to a citizen's question in this debate's "Town Hall" format. Asked about the perilous economy, Obama demanded a "rescue package" for the middle class and linked the current economic security to the Bush administration -- and McCain.

McCain seemed still sunny as he fielded the same question, and he made a point of telling Obama, by name, how "nice" it was to be with him at a town meeting. He then addressed himself to "home values." No return of Obama's brisk serve.

When the next question came his way, a potential purpose pitch about whom he might appoint in the stead of Treasury Secretary Chris Cox, whose resignation he had called for, McCain once again played to his better angel. "Not you, Tom," he said, getting a laugh. Then he praised Warren Buffet, "someone who is supporting Senator Obama," as a possibility.

That unexpected grace note of an answer left Obama little to do except to agree that Buffet would be a "good choice." He did make a run on the idea that "it's not enough to help the people at the top."

He hazarded another shot at McCain with his next answer, again a general-purpose one on the economy. He announced he needed to "correct" the account on Senator McCain's history, once again trying to tie his opponent to the economic status quo now seemingly undergoing dissolution.

Who'd a thunk it. So far Obama seemed the aggressor and McCain was the pussycat, who, like Pablo in For Whom The Bell Tolls, would No Provoke.

As the debate wore into its middle stages, Obama seemed mild and focused, but as he continued to scold the economic policies of the Bush administration, he missed no opportunity to tie them to McCain.


"I can see why you feel that cynicism and mistrust, because the system in Washington is broken," McCain said, addressing not his opponent per se nor the criticism of that sort that had come his way, and not just in this debate. He boasted his own purported crusades against "the special interests," and -- here came a counter-punch at last -- he faulted Obama for "taking no leadership" in such matters. Next he characterized Obama as the "most liberal" presidential candidate in history, a ruinous "big spender."

All the while Obama offered a thin, patient smile, as if to say: I saw this coming.

But then it stopped coming for a while. McCain went back to describing himself as someone "with a clear record of working across the aisle." Asked his priorities, he went lowball, making the case for clean coal and portable health care. Obama himself reverted to his own calm and reasonable mode, talking up economic fairness, health care, and education.

Like McCain, Obama said he would watch spending carefully, but attempted to up the ante with an insistence that "we have to see what happens with our tax money."

Where would cuts comes from in a time of war? Brokaw asked. Surprisingly, McCain named "defense contractors" as a source of concern, but paradoxically exempted defense spending from the "spending freeze" which he next advocated. A good example of how he seemed to be splitting middles in this debate.

Obama faulted Bush for his "go out and shop" advice to Americans in the aftermath of the 9/11 shocks, and he, too, sneaked in a plug for "clean coal." Another means of economizing, he said, would be "fuel-efficient cars." (At about this point in what was becoming a snooze-fest a fear arose that sales of Ambien would fall off precipitately -- yet another economic disaster in the making.)

The revenue side was as important as the spending side, Obama said next, pinning McCain yet again to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. His pattern of attack was clear, if over-familiar and repetitious: Bush-McCain, Bush-McCain, Bush-McCain.

McCain: Obama wants to raise taxes. And: Nailing down Senator Obama's promises is like nailing "jello to a wall." And an almost indigestible piece of math. Obama's taxes would increase taxes on "50 percent of business revenue." Huh?

"I'm not interested in tax benefits for the wealthy," McCain said, but in cutting in half the burden of taxes on everybody else. Obama wouldn't have it and wanted to respond. Brokaw put his foot down. No.

Asked about Social Security and Medicare, Obama said he wanted to go back to tax policy. McCain smiled in the background, as Obama said his policies meant a tax reduction for 95 percent of all Americans. The smiling McCain was Joe Biden from last week. The change-the-subject, talk-about-what-I-wanna Obama was doing a Sarah Palin.


McCain almost giggled when it was his turn. "I'll answer the question!" he said. Then, taking on Social Security and Medicare, he hearkened back to the early '80s and the days of a Ronald Reagan-Tip O’Neill detente on such issues. "Rhetoric and record" he said, meaning to contrast Obama with himself. And, as is his wont, he bragged on himself as someone who had tangled with all the powers that be. "I’m not that popular with my own party, much less his," he said.

There he was next, boasting that he had "tangled with the Bush administration" on greenhouse gases.

At the halfway point, McCain seemed comfortable with himself, having repeatedly played his McCain The Maverick card, seeming reasonable all the while, and talking policy. His few slaps Obama's way seemed permissible enough in the context. He was clearly easier on his feet -- not the brawler of the previous week.

For his part, Obama was getting through McCain's defenses but was impressive enough, if somewhat soporific, when he, too restricted himself to policy.

As if perhaps to wake himself and the audience, McCain's jabs began coming a little more frequently. Who had voted for Bush’s giveaway energy bill? McCain asked. Not himself. But "That one![Senator Obama]!"

Tentatively, Obama, too, was returning again to the attack. "What one hand giveth the other taketh away," was his way of characterizing McCain’s proposals for tax credits on health care, which, Obama said, he would promptly tax right back.

"Government will do this, and government will do that. He's talking about mandates," said McCain of Obama’s health-care proposals. "We've got to have choice in America."

Was health care in America a privilege, a right, or a responsibility? Brokaw asked. McCain opted for the latter term.

Obama's answer was different: "I think it ought to be a right." By now the two were distinguishing less between themselves than between the traditional philosophies of their parties.


Brokaw announced a shifting of gears -- to foreign policy.

How might our nation ask as a peacemaker in the world? came the next question.

"The challenge is to know when the United States can beneficially affect the outcome of a crisis," McCain said. And only someone with sufficient experience and knowledge would know. He cited Bosnia, Kosovo, and the First Gulf War as examples of his own good judgment in supporting military action.

"It's true. There are some things I don't understand,” Obama said. Why we attacked Iraq instead of redoubling our efforts in Afghanistan, as one example. And that was a case, he said, where McCain's judgment had been wrong. Misallocations of that sort had prevented us from acting where we should.

Now came McCain's defense of the surge strategy in Iraq. Senator Obama, he said, would have had us leaving Iraq in defeat, while he himself still foresaw a victory there. "You have to temper your decisions," he added, citing his opposition to Reagan’s dispatch of Marines to Lebanon in 1983 as an example of temperance on his part.

Some more familiar arguments came in here, with Obama lamenting that American involvement in Iraq allowed Osama bin Laden to beat a retreat in Afghanistan. The subject veered to Pakistan, which Obama viewed with alarm. "Talk softly and carry a big stick," McCain countered by way of paraphrasing "my hero," Theodore Roosevelt. "Senator Obama wants to talk loud."

We need to "get the people of Pakistan to work with us, not threaten ... to attack them," McCain said.

Obama insisted on a follow-up. "Nobody called for an invasion of Pakistan." What he'd said was that, if Pakistan proved unwilling to hunt down bin Laden, "then we should." He ridiculed McCain's posture of being somber and responsible and reminded everyone again of McCain's rendition of a well-known Beach Boys standard with provocative new lyrics: "Bomb, Bomb Iran."

McCain was restrained in response. He had been "joking with an old veteran friend" about Iran, he said. He promised that he could coax Iran into peace talks, "but I'm not going to telegraph my punches." He promised: "I'm going to act responsibly, as I have throughout my career."

As the candidates approached the end game, it seemed obvious that McCain had resolved to come into this debate calm and reasonable, even friendly, and leave it the same way. No longer the vague sullen brawler of last week.


"We're not going to have another cold war with Russia," he said. "But we have to make Russia understand that there are penalties." We have to use leverage, economic and diplomatic, in tandem with our allies, said the relaxed and equable warrior, operating now under a de facto truce.

All the while, Obama was the same figure of cool he had been for the twenty-odd debates he'd had since the beginning of 2007. His dissertations on policy, such as "being more strategic" with the Russians, using energy as leverage with them, were articulate and provocative. Yet he could acknowledge that Vladimir Putin was capable of "evil" behavior.

It was McCain who stressed, "I think we can deal with them," so long as the United States presented them with a firm face.

At the very end came a question like that which had vexed the Biden-Palin debate: How might the United States react to a provocative military act from our ally Israel? McCain deflected the question into a concern about the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons. "What would you do if you were the Israelis?" McCain asked. He then tilted the answer toward advocacy of a firm policy toward Iran. "We cannot allow a second Holocaust."

That said, Obama had very little to say by way of a difference. "We will never take military options off the table." But, he said, "It is true that we should have direct talks, not just with our friends but with our enemies."

"I know I wouldn't be standing here but that this country gave me an opportunity," said Obama about his modest beginnings. And he ended with a call for fundamental change.

McCain's conclusion: "What I don't know is what all of us don't know....What I don't know is what the unexpected will be."

And that was it.

III. The Spin Game:

Afterwards, of course, the media tent broke up into claques of reporters surrounding this or that spokesperson for one of the candidates. Lieberman walked in, with an entourage. Giant standards were raised, indicating just where AXELROD or GIBBS or PLOUFFE could be found. Insofar as one could gain access to these gurus, they all seemed to be equivocating. None of them found real traction with which to separate his man from the other guy.

One queue of media folk, seemingly in desperation, formed a semi-circular pack around an unusual oracle: Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, who -- bizarrely enough -- was answering questions, rather than asking them. What is it they say about the land of the blind? Lieberman walked out, with an entourage.

All things considered, it was a good thing that all of the first-round baseball playoff were over, so that the debate could happen during a lull. Once the media types broke away and settled down to their own thoughts, they seemed to agree on two things: This debate was dull. And this debate was a draw. Civility had triumphed after all, but at a price.

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