McCain Gets All Wound Up, Fails To Make Pitch In their town-hall-style debate Tuesday night, Barack Obama projected calm and John McCain unveiled a new plan for bad mortgages — but didn't explain how the $300 billion plan would work. McCain needed this debate to be a game-changer, but it wasn't.
NPR logo McCain Gets All Wound Up, Fails To Make Pitch

McCain Gets All Wound Up, Fails To Make Pitch

Political campaigns have been run by savvy marketing guys for decades. I'd like to think that, on the grounds of pure professionalism, most of them would have avoided the marketing malpractice committed at the outset of Tuesday night's presidential debate.

In his very first answer, Republican nominee John McCain announced that he was terribly concerned about the economic crisis enveloping the land. He promised that if elected president, he would order the Treasury secretary to buy up all the bad mortgages on homes where people could no longer afford to make their payments.

McCain spoke for less than one minute about his proposal, which would cost an estimated $300 billion. Actually, he didn't mention the price tag; his campaign did. I got an e-mail from his press shop shortly after he wrapped up his 50 seconds on the subject.

Think about that. These presidential debates draw probably between 60 million and 80 million viewers. For a candidate playing catch-up in the polls, like McCain, this is as good a megaphone as he's going to get. Please, Senator, take a sec. Slow down. Tell us a bit about these 300 billion bucks that we're spending on top of that now infamous $700 billion bailout. Rescue. Whatever.

Imagine if Abraham Lincoln had started the Gettysburg Address by saying, "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, so, if you don't mind, go to my new Web site, www.cannotconsecrate.linc for details."

Afterward, on Fox News Channel, William Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard looked absolutely nonplused. Kristol had publicly implored McCain to drag in Obama's past affiliations with controversial figures such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright was not mentioned Tuesday night.

"It's a pretty chaotic campaign," Kristol told Fox's Brit Hume. "Look, it may be a good plan. [But] to throw this out in this way, it's pretty risky. This wouldn't be a way you'd classically lay out a big, $300 billion proposal."

Flaws And Jabs

McCain has actually tended to make his case pretty well in debates, both in the primaries and in the first debate against Barack Obama last month. He speaks directly and often more concretely than the Illinois Democrat. McCain's campaign very much wanted this town-hall-style exchange, as the senator feeds off the presence of the crowd, though this screened gathering was obviously a little different from a group of full-throated supporters. He walked over to one fellow Navy veteran who asked a question and clasped him on the shoulder. He spoke better about the economy in the first half of the debate than he did in his public statements during the bailout debates on Capitol Hill.

But this performance was meant to be a game-changer, and it wasn't. His jokes fell flat. At times, McCain talked repeatedly about his ability to work across party lines, but there were times when he seemed annoyed to be on the stage with Obama. ("You know who voted for it?" McCain asked viewers about a pork-laden bill, gesturing at Obama. "That one!")

Obama also won the visuals. When McCain spoke, Obama typically sat still, attentively, often smiling. When Obama spoke, McCain seemed to hover impatiently next to his own chair.

Obama wasn't flawless, either. He talked about the Defense researchers who invented computers so they could communicate — surely they created the forerunner of the Internet. (That sound you hear is Al Gore grinding his molars.) He didn't always answer the question, like, say, when moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC asked whom Obama would name as Treasury secretary. He stepped on an abbreviated version of his stirring narrative of his rise from modest means, saying he couldn't have had the opportunity to do so any other place in the country. Must have meant the world. And he went long, occasionally prompting McCain to plead for follow-ups, and irritating Brokaw.

"I'm just the hired help here," Brokaw said after the candidates once again ran over the time limits that their own campaigns had negotiated.

But Obama had some good lines to rebut McCain's claim that he was unready for the job. "It's true, there are some things I don't understand," Obama allowed. "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-Qaida are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us. That was Sen. McCain's judgment, and it is the wrong judgment."

And Obama seemed able to convey his concerns about the economy directly to viewers at home and with an ease missing during some of his debates in the primary.

Centered On The Economy

The approximately 673 strategists, pundits, analysts and reporters on CNN as part of the largest political team on television agreed before the debate that everything centered on the economy.

Republican consultant and CNN analyst Alex Castellanos said he didn't really need any Clintonian-style "feel your pain" from the candidates.

"The house is burning down," Castellanos said. "Empathy is nice, but I want someone to put out the fire," he said.

Fellow CNN analyst William Bennett, a former Republican Education secretary and drug czar, said the candidates had a question to answer: "Do you understand the problem, and do you have a plan?"

And then, Bennett — who has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas and a law degree from Harvard — made a confession about the economic crisis: "I don't think most of us still understand what this is. I talk 20 hours a week on the radio; I don't get it. I think it would be great for somebody who wants to be commander in chief saying, 'This is what happened.' "

Invoking Past Presidents

Obama invoked John F. Kennedy's push for the moon, calling for energy self-sufficiency in 10 years. McCain invoked Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt, the latter for speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

David Gergen, the only CNN analyst to serve as a counselor to presidents of both parties, invoked another president from another perilous economic time.

"We're in a new world — we're in a new landscape," Gergen said. "The political candidates have to tell us how this new world works. ...They have to have some sense of action. There is a sense now for two days that this rescue plan hasn't been sufficient."

Obama projected calm. McCain unveiled a new plan for bad mortgages. But he hardly took the trouble to tell viewers — and voters — how his new world would work. And that may not be sufficient, either.