Final Thought: Brokaw hurt both men

It occurs to me that neither McCain nor Obama particularly “glittered” last night, largely because of the debate format, and I blame Brokaw for it.

Senator McCain is known to be at his best in a free-for-all Townhall format. He’s comfortable mixing it up, and that’s why he invited Sen. Obama to do a series of ten of them over the summer.

Obama is known to be at his worst in such a format and understandably refused McCain’s offer.

But a “Townhall” debate has become a staple of the presidential election, so there had to be at least one; Obama couldn’t avoid it.

Enter Tom Brokaw, who did everything he could to turn the debate into what Obama was comfortable with, and to shield him from unexpected, discomfiting questions. Brokaw turned last night’s “Townhall” into a standard Podium debate without the podium.

That did not work for either man. Obama had some rhetorical cover, but he did not have the physical cover he seems to like, the barrier of a podium or desk, the ready pen and paper. He looked very uncomfortable, self-conscious and exposed when he sat – like he really wanted something between him and the audience.

For McCain, the expectation that he was going into a real Townhall meeting only to discover that no, it was just another damned and tedious podium debate with an option to walk around, seemed to take some steam from him. Instead of mixing it up with the audience, he was back to the same dreary questions both candidates have already stumped and debated to death, with no opportunity – thanks to Brokaw – to take a question on something the least bit provocative or challenging.

I believe Brokaw thought to be doing Obama a favor by taking control of that so-called Townhall, protecting him from any unwelcome surprises. But he served neither man well, and I don’t blame McCain for seeming a little pissed. At this point, all he has to look forward to is one more podium debate with a once-again comfortable Obama and an audience that will largely ignore it, thanks to this snooze-fest. McCain had to know that – in his subtle, old-newsman style – Brokaw had completely and unfairly screwed him.

Ed Morrissey also finds some Brokawian soft bias in the question selections:

The question of questions is a stronger accusation. Like Ifill, Brokaw managed to avoid the following topics:

* Abortion
* Gun control
* Judicial nominations
* Immigration

With the current financial crisis, an emphasis on economics was expected. Brokaw did ask about entitlement reform, which hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. However, the topics above have driven presidential politics for decades and have single-issue constituencies that matter in elections. For the second straight debate, Americans didn’t hear candidate views on any of them.

Does that oversight help Barack Obama? On the first topic, most definitely. It would have provided an opportunity for McCain to hammer Obama for his opposition to the Illinois version of the Born Alive Infant Protection Act and explain to a national audience how Obama acted to protect infanticide. Gun control would have allowed McCain to challenge the Con Law expert on why he couldn’t take a stand on the Second Amendment before Heller. Judicial nominations would have spoken to the base in both parties, and on immigration, little daylight exists between the two candidates.

I’d call the latter two topics a draw, but McCain got hurt by not getting a question on the first two. Brokaw made the decision on questions, and he has to take responsibility for his choices.

All emphases, mine.

It remains to be seen if Bob Scheiffer will manage to allow those questions in the next debate, at Hofstra University. I suspect he will. Or maybe I mean I hope he will. I’ve always thought of Scheiffer as pretty straight up. I miss Russert. He’d have asked.

Btw, the Great “That One” Controversy Pretend Racist Slur thing is the lamest attempt yet by the Obama camp to play victim. Good lord…I agree with Treacher: this sort of incessant umbrage-taking, hypersensitivity is not really the behavior of a gang who feel the wind at their backs.

UPDATE: Althouse has morning after thoughts – Obama won – and also about that mysterious earpiece possibility.

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  • lsusportsfan

    * Abortion
    * Gun control
    * Judicial nominations
    * Immigration

    Yes I am getting pretty fed up that some questions on these issues are not being asked.

    I actually think all these issues go to McCain favor. Even on the topic that divides all immigration. It needs to get out that McCain put his poltical hide on the line for the tough issue of immigration twice and Obama killed it at the request of Unions by a Poison pill. No matter where you stand on a issue that show what Obama is all about. Get elected by all means possible

  • Joseph

    My undertanding is that the restrictions on the debate format was a matter of mutual agreement by both campaigns and that the questions were to be chosen in advance, the debaters would not talk to one another, and specific time limits were set. There is no reason on earth why McCain should be in any way surprised by the disadvantages of this. If Brokaw was merely enforcing that prior agreement, you have no reason to blame him for doing his job.

    Moreover, there is no reason why the McCain campaign couldn’t have insisted on some questions about Abortion, Gun Control, Judicial nominations, and Immigration. The absence is a perfectly clear indication that McCain no more wanted to address them than Obama. In the post immediately below this I give some reasons why I think they don’t. I won’t repeat them here, but I would suggest you give my analysis some serious thought if you really wish to bring these issues back to the table.

    [Get real Joseph - it was supposed to be a "townhall" debate; even with agreeing to framework "terms" I am quite certain that McCain did not expect Brokaw to act like a schoolmarm with the timeclock and a complete (and weird) unwillingness to deviate from "the rules", which is the antithesis of what a townhall is supposed to be about. A little spontaneity would have hurt who? And I don't sense that ANYONE was allowed to "insist" on certain topics being brought up. That would be very strange, indeed. And your energy for pouncing, if predictable, argument is just daunting this week; I HAVE NOT got the energy to respond. Glad you seem to be feeling well, though - admin]

  • Joseph

    Thank you for the good wishes. And I must confess you are right, the fact that I actually read the rules of the debate somewhere is a tiresome reiteration, which is a bore, as is my habit of overwriting. I’ll try to keep it shorter and sweeter in the future.

  • Acer Palmatum

    McCain’s reference to 300 billion to buy down mortgages is possibly part of the 700 billion dollar plan

    Well that is good to know, although what is an extra 300 billion now a days among friends?

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  • HNAV

    I think you are being really kind.

    Especially to the two Senators in the Race.

    The format was a venue, and a quality Candidate can use it to their advantage.

    Senator McCain was terrible.

    Certainly Obama is vapid, but why can’t John McCain make a simple case for fighting the GWOT, and the admirable endeavor in Iraq?

    John McCain showed how lackluster he was in all the GOP Debates, even referencing his friend, Mr. Gramm, when asked the most simplistic of economic questions.

    Those who gave us the Maverick, simply were not thinking clearly.

    You cannot run a Life Long Beltway Insider for the Presidency, especially a Senator, who has little accomplishment, is well beyond his prime, lacks sincere ability, articulation, vision, insight, etc., and opposes most of his Party’s offering.

    The difference is, Obama is younger, APPEARS more relaxed, calm, etc., and John McCain has a very unattractive nature personally. Besides the issues McCain is foolishly ceding, the Senator simply comes conveys a snobby demeanor, often equated with the folly of the US Senate.

  • HNAV

    As a big fan of the CAPTAIN, I must say, it is the CANDIDATE.

    Not the Venue, the Media, the Environment, etc…

    You have to give people a sincere reason to vote for you.

    John McCain is a disaster…

    “McCain was awkward and rambling and said some pretty strange things – like calling Obama “that one.” Several of his attempts at humor came off as brittle and harsh.”

  • Gayle Miller

    The so-called “major” media have their pre-determined game plan and they are sticking to it, no matter how boneheaded it makes them look.

    And have we all seen the cover of Newsweek? Bunch of cretins who think they know better than we do what we need.

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  • Bender B. Rodriguez

    I see that Althouse notes what is now glaringly obvious, and the real reason for McCain’s failure –
    “McCain offered no defense of his party, only assertions that he had tried to get regulations passed. So, there he was, embedded in failure. He didn’t stand by the principles of conservatism. . . . McCain never presented the conservative alternative to Obama. He never even called himself a conservative last night. He was wandering all over that red carpet, microphone in hand, and I have the feeling, in retrospect, that he was truly bewildered, mouthing old phrases, trying to slip by.”

    It is because of such things as this that some of us conservatives had such a fit back in late January/early February when it became certain that McCain would be the nominee.

  • pbuchta

    Joe’s right. As Brokaw stated, both parties agreed to the terms of conduct. If it is any indication that both candidates broke those terms, well my friends, you may guess how as president they may act.

    Abortion would still be mandated and controlled locally. The Republicans use these two topics to garner support for their party, nothing else. If they really took these issues to heart they would’ve finished it off during Republican control over both houses of Congress and the Presidency. It is futile to think that anti abortion laws would ever stand by its own merits. My comments to all of the anti abortionists who support unrealistic federal change of the law on this board is to wake up and get real. Sort of like Jesus’ comments to Nicodemus of being born again.

    Preventing abortions is key, NOT the law. Just because you change the law doesn’t mean you change the way of thinking. This is a free country, not a Theocracy like Iran. Soon we’d all be wearing burkas and living in caves.

    Oh, I can hear those pharissetic right wingers now how I’m gonna burn in ‘H’ ‘E’ double hockey sticks for my point of view. Well we all know what happened to the Pharisees and their point of view. They want you to follow their way of thinking without thinking, without being born again. Honestly, we should be thinking of ways to truly address the problem and not the symptom. Abortion is a symptom of the larger miserable conditions of poverty and ignorance. How can we develop unique ideas and programs to truly deal with this? To truly make our thinking, born again.

  • Jeanette

    This should have been ordinary people not selected by anyone to attend, and a larger group, with Brokaw doing nothing more than announcing the beginning and end of the debate.

    This is what I expected and not what I got.

  • Jeanette


    I’m curious after reading your comment. Is Obama your “Messiah” through whom you will be born again?

    I see no messianic qualities in either man and what I saw last night were two senators debating and neither seemed presidential.

    The difference is we will be socialists under “that one” and capitalists under McCain. If “that one” is elected it won’t be long before we are in a dictatorship. Dare I call it communism?

  • ClintACK

    I can’t wait until the American people get a chance to ponder the question: Will Obama’s whining impress Putin?

    If the McCain camp can manage to plant that question in enough minds over the next four weeks…