Alex Massie

A New Kind of Campaign?

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From the New York Times today:

In a sign of what could be an extremely unusual fall campaign, the two sides said Saturday that they would be open to holding joint forums or unmoderated debates across the country in front of voters through the summer. Mr. Obama, campaigning in Oregon, said that the proposal, floated by Mr. McCain’s advisers, was “a great idea.”...

The rivals are openly discussing staging forums across the country to speak directly to voters, an idea that is by any measure unconventional for a general election campaign.

Asked about the idea on Saturday, Mr. Obama told reporters in Oregon, “If I have the opportunity to debate substantive issues before the voters with John McCain, that’s something that I’m going to welcome.”

Noam Scheiber says "Obama should nix the unmoderated debate idea. Fast" arguing that there's no upside to it for Obama. Noam argues that the Democratic candidate is going to have an enormous financial adantage, he's going to generate more enthusiasm than McCain and he's going to try and tie McCain to a failed Bush presidency. Unmoderated debates would help McCain "overcome all three problems".

This seems right to me. Which is also why it's such a clever idea for McCain to propose. In the first place it flatters Obama's already well-developed sense of himself as a statesman cut from a higher grade of cloth than that worn by other politicians these days. It appeals to his idea of "elevating" politics too. Thirdly, and relatedly, it's easy to suspect that Obama could be weary of having to play the "gotcha" game favoured by the likes of Tim Russert, Chris Matthews and the rest of the blowhards who moderate "traditional" debates and, consequently, that he'd be open to anything that stymied their desire to referee the contest.

But the excellence of the notion - from the McCain point of view - is that McCain wins even if Obama rejects the idea. The McCain campaign would then be able to claim, not altogether unreasonably, that "Barack Obama preaches the idea of a 'new politics' moving away from and beyond the 'tired old conventions of the past' but when he's given the opportunity to prove the seriousness of his intentions he ducks and runs and hides. He's just another politician more interested in playing the same old games. You might consider him a hypocrite; we couldn't possibly comment. John McCain, by contrast, will speak before any audience, anytime, anywhere. The American people can contrast his record of Straight Talking candour with Barack Obama's rhetoric of reform that, curiously, always seems to founder upon the rocks of political expediency..." Well, you get the idea.

Since much of Obama's appeal rests upon his rhetoric and the sense to which he's offering something better, more noble than anything the voters have seen in years, the McCain campaign has to do something to counter this. "Where's the beef?" may be one part of it, but portraying Obama as a self-serving hypocrite might be even better. (With the added advantage that McCain, who suffers from no shortage of moral vanity himself, may also believe its true).

Equally, if Obama accepts the idea then McCain also benefits for all the reasons Noam lays out.

(Of course, it's also true that Obama could win these debates. But they would seem to carry more risk for him than for an underdog McCain.)

UPDATE: As commenters point out, the debates would also, of course, offer a contrast between a youthful, vigorous Obama and a shrunken, ancient McCain. True enough and it may also be true, as I say, that Obama would win the debates but all this merely makes it more likely that the media will give McCain the benefit of the doubt in terms of meeting, or exceeding, expectations even if he only has a mildly above-average performance. Maybe it shouldn't work that way, but all this is why it may be a riskier proposition for Obama than for McCain. He has more to lose. Which, I suspect, is one reason why McCain's people came up with the idea.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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