Sunday, August 17, 2008

McCain on Message at Saddleback Forum

As I've noted, Barack Obama missed a huge opportunity last night at Orange County's Saddleback Church. The political one-on-one talk with Reverend Rick Warren offered Obama the chance to speak directly to the American people and resassure the public that he's one them, that he cares about their issues in a direct personal way.

Instead, Obama took the path of least resistance, speaking from his head and not his heart, risking nothing, and thus failing to make the sale.

Chuck Todd,
at NBC, makes the case that indeed, it was John McCain's night:

Obama spent more time trying to impress Warren (or to put another away) not offend Warren while McCain seemingly ignored Warren and decided he was talking to folks watching on TV. The McCain way of handling this forum is usually the winning way. Obama may have had more authentic moments but McCain was impressively on message.

This was a mistake Obama made a few times during the primary season. On one hand, it can make a moderator feel good when their subject actually tries to answer every question and take into account their opinions on a particular topic. And Obama's supporters will email me tonight and say this is what they love about him.

And yet, this reminded me of the many comparisons we made between Obama and Hillary Clinton. She was much more effective at answering questions in 90 seconds and always staying on message while Obama too easily allowed himself to get knocked off his talking points. Remember, Obama doesn't need to win over his supporters, he needs folks who are just now tuning in.

Take the VERY first question Warren posed to both candidates: who are three people you'll depend on for wisdom in the presidency. Obama seemed to answer this in a very personal way, talking about his wife and grandmother. McCain went right to this message, checking boxes on Iraq (Patraeus) and the economy (Whitman) for instance. Now, I'm betting Obama's answer came across as more authentic but McCain's was probably more effective with undecided swing voters.

The two answered the Supreme Court justice question VERY differently, with Obama seemingly trying to say a nice thing or two about justices he disagreed with, while McCain went right to pander mode in his answer. And yet, McCain's straightforward answer easily penetrated while Obama's did not.

Every Obama answer was certainly thoughtful enough but he seemed to want to explain himself too much and went out of his way not to offend folks who disagree with him.

Don't get me wrong, this will play well with some but McCain's directness and snappy answers that were on message allowed him to look commanding on that stage.
Basically, Obama won over Rick Warren, and McCain won over Main Street.

I noted earlier that Obama's abortion discussion would capture a lot of attention, and
Captain Ed explains why, responding to Obama's other-worldly answer that the question of human rights for the unborn was above his pay grade:

First, the entire issue of abortion involves determining when a baby becomes a person. If Obama thinks this is above his pay grade, then he probably shouldn’t be running for political office. If a baby is a person at conception, then abortion is murder. If Obama doesn’t believe that abortion is murder, then he can’t believe in the personhood, the humanity, of an embryo or fetus — not unless he’s some kind of monster.

As President — even as Senator — Obama is expected to have an answer for this. Quite literally, there is no higher pay grade in the US government, and abortion is one of the issues he has to face. If he can’t face it, then he should go back to community organization and leave politics for people who can. John McCain had no trouble answering the same question. Obama dodged it — and for good reason: his answer would have exposed his radical views.
If pro-life advocacy is the litmus test for evangelicals, I can't see how Barack Obama - with his abortion advocacy - can cut into the GOP advantage with this constituency.

The other touchy issue last night, outside of national security, appears to be McCain's response to the income cut-off point defining who's rich. Whereas Obama came out to say those making $250,000 or more will see an income tax increase under his administration, McCain argued against an arbitrary cut off point determining who's wealthy.

Steve Benen,
at the Carpetbagger Report, has the transcript of McCain's response:

Some of the richest people I’ve ever known in my life are the most unhappy. I think that rich is — should be defined by a home, a good job and education and the ability to hand to our children a more prosperous and safer world than the one that we inherited. I don’t want to take any money from the rich. I want everybody to get rich. I don’t believe in class warfare or redistribution of the wealth. But I can tell you for example there are small businessmen and women who are working 16 hours a day, seven days a week that some people would classify as, quote, ‘rich,’ my friends, who want to raise their taxes and raise their payroll taxes. Let’s have — keep taxes low. Let’s give every family in America a $7,000 tax credit for every child they have. Let’s give them a $5,000 refundable tax credit to go out and get the health insurance of their choice. Let’s not have the government take over the health care system in America.
McCain also threw out an off-hand figure of $5 million . The number was clearly arbitrary, and offered in jest. Benen thinks this is a defining issue, however:

Just how out of touch is John McCain? On the one hand, he’s running ads talking about how “tough” times are “for the rest of us,” but on the other, McCain, one of Congress’ wealthiest members, thinks people who make millions of dollars a year aren’t quite rich, and he doesn’t want to bother them with taxes anyway.

If anything from last night comes back to bite McCain on the butt, it’s this.
The Politico seems to agree, but the notion that all Americans want to get rich - and that they should have that opportunity - is as traditional as apple pie.

How the question of tax fairness and wealth plays out will remain a key issue in the campaign, but fundamentally, while many folks are facing hard economic times, everyone should have the chance to make $250,000 or more, and be considered "rich," without being penalized for it.