Last night’s “town hall” debate between the two presidential candidates was, once again, a frustrating study in how to avoid answering questions. Our candidates for high office have too many scripts and not nearly enough good answers. In place of policies, we hear slogans. In place of specific action steps, we hear how the other guy voted in the past. I’m a lot less concerned with what happened last year or five or ten years ago and far more concerned with whether any of these individuals can get us out of the current economic mess come January 21, when the parades are over and the real work for the new administration begins.
As an example of rhetoric replacing direct answers, the very first question last night came from a member of the audience who was a retired senior citizen asking, “With the economy on the downturn and retired and older citizens and workers losing their incomes, what’s the fastest, most positive solution to bail these people out of the economic ruin?” Obama answered with a rant on the recent boondoggle spa retreat of executives of the failed insurance company AIG. McCain answered with energy independence — and then a stunning announcement that if he was president he’d order the Secretary of the Treasury to buy back all of the bad home mortgages in America. With due respect to both candidates, they didn’t answer the question!
In a follow-up question, moderator Tom Brokaw asked each candidate to say who they would appoint as Secretary of the Treasury. McCain answered by citing the names of two individuals who are deeply enmeshed in the fabric of Wall Street (Warren Buffett and Meg Whitman) and then he said, “…it’s going to have to be somebody who inspires trust and confidence. Because the problem in America today to a large extent, Tom, is that we don’t have trust and confidence in our institutions because of the corruption on Wall Street and the greed and excess and the cronyism in Washington, D.C. “ Obama vaguely agreed that Buffet might be good, but then he disregarded the question entirely to talk about middle class tax cuts.
So it went. A question about how the bailout package would help people on Main Street was an opportunity for McCain to attack Obama on his ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which was not an answer to the question. Obama tried to explain something about the bailout package, but then rushed to point out McCain’s own ties to Fannie and Freddie — again, disregarding the urgent concerns of ordinary citizens (Joe Sixpacks, anyone?) who just want to know if they’re going to be able to get car loans, college loans, and have any retirement savings at the end of this.
Who won? I don’t really think it serves the public need for clear and candid candidate communications to keep measuring the results in W-L columns. I think the public loses when the debates degrade to sound bites and slogans. McCain is so busy attacking Obama for an earmark for a “$3 million overhead projector” which was a gross distortion that he completely missed the public’s need to hear him talk seriously about an action plan to address the financial crisis. Obama did a somewhat better job tying his attack on McCain’s proposal for tax cuts to the challenge of funding Social Security and Medicare, but here again, the candidate was so focused on scoring a point against the opponent that the actual policy proposal was muddled.
I’d give huge points to any candidate who imposes the discipline on himself (and herself!) to refrain from attacks on the opposition for the balance of the campaign. Americans are totally stressed out about the economy, the war, the abysmal state of our political leadership right now. We don’t need this low-minded tit-for-tat point-scoring argument that passes for serious political debate. We need to see candidates with the vision and courage to lead, the intelligence and wit to shape effective and durable policies, and the grace and sensitivity necessary to understand the vast legacy of human need and even fear that the next administration will inherit from the incumbents. We can’t hear any of that when they avoid the answers.