The Town Hall Idea Dies: An Opportunity Wasted for Obama?

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Many months ago, the McCain campaign tried to push for a regular schedule of joint town halls that would replace the standard presidential election paradigm of three formal debates between the conventions and the general election. The Obama campaign suggested that it was interested, and back in those naive months of spring it seemed like the town halls were an example of where an Obama-McCain election, contested between two practitioners of politics-as-unusual, would break the mold.

Nope. The Obama campaign, realizing that it would be wise to do nothing that jeopardizes its lead, sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates (the what now?) agreeing to three debates on September 26, October 7, and October 15. The campaign also agreed to the standard vice presidential debate.

The letter, written by David Plouffe, appears to rule out the possibility of more debates, saying, “Due to the late date of the two parties’ nominating conventions, and the relatively short period between the end of the conventions and the first proposed date, it is likely that the four Commission debates will be the sole series of debates in the fall campaign.”

A McCain spokesman said in response, “John McCain looks forward to debating Barack Obama as often as possible, but it’s disappointing that Sen. Obama has refused his offer to do joint town hall meetings.”

I agree. The town halls would have been fun. The primary debates proved that ordinary people can ask questions that are as good, and sometimes better, than professional moderators. This much we do know: They are much more likely to ask about gas prices than flag pins.

But the Obama campaign seems to understand a couple things: (1) McCain can pile up small gaffes without paying a serious political price. Maybe that’s because everyone is focused on Obama, maybe it’s because people forgive the older McCain for a few slips, maybe it’s because the press has spent years bonding with the Arizona Senator. But the point is that unlike with other candidates, there is no advantage in putting McCain in a situation where he’ll make even more minor mistakes.

And (2) McCain is playing from behind, and therefore has a lot less to lose.

But there’s an argument to be made that the Obama campaign missed a great opportunity. A side-by-side comparison of Obama and McCain can only help Obama. Consider the optics: Obama is tall, young, and ramrod straight; McCain is old, tired, and hunched. Obama inspires; McCain reminds us yet again that Islamic extremists want to kill our babies (that’s the point of his campaign, right?). Obama proposes new ideas on health care, the economy, and the war in Iraq; McCain is forced to reiterate the policy positions of George W. Bush. My point: the starker the contrast, the better for Barack Obama. This feels like an opportunity wasted.

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