Sunday, June 29, 2008

McCain’s “town hall” cry is silly

Am I the only one in the United States who is sick and tired of listening to Republican presidential hopeful John McCain try to make a campaign issue out of “town hall” meetings?

He did it again on Saturday while appearing before the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. During a noon-hour event where McCain and Democratic opponent Barack Obama gave separate speeches to the group interested in promoting Hispanic political empowerment, he ad-libbed an attack against Obama based on the event’s format.

“I WISH MY colleague were here from the U.S. Senate, but he is not here,” McCain told the gathering of Latino politicos and others, some of whom spent their time heckling him. “I would have appreciated it more if we could have had a town hall meeting.”

It was a trivial enough issue when McCain (on the day earlier this month that it became apparent Obama had defeated Hillary R. Clinton for the presidential nomination) tried to take control of the news cycle for the day by turning Obama’s “victory” into his “refusal” to engage in “town hall” meetings.

Actually, Obama has not refused. He hasn’t committed yet either. But there are still just over four months that will be loaded with lots of activities (both substantial and trivial) meant to promote the ’08 presidential election.

To be complaining now about the refusal of a “town hall” meeting gives McCain the appearance of a whiner – a crotchety old man who’s upset that those dang kids don’t see the “wisdom” of his ways.

IT IS NO secret why McCain is eager to have the concept of a “town hall” meeting as the major forum by which the two candidates interact with each other. He’s comfortable with it, particularly when his campaign staff stages the event.

That is what people must understand whenever one sees these “town hall” format debates or other programs. They are staged to give the appearance that “common folk” who just happened to attend a presidential event suddenly get the chance to spontaneously ask the candidates about what issues are on their minds.

It’s Reality TV, political style – which means a “town hall” meeting is about as real an event as an episode of “Survivor.” It is just as staged an event as any campaign rally or speech, or any debate (the format that McCain would prefer to avoid engaging Obama in).

My observations as a political reporter in Chicago and Illinois throughout the past two decades have shown me that the people who get to be in the audience for “town hall” meetings are usually selected because of their political partisanship. Simply put, they are not hostile to the candidate in question.

THE QUESTIONS THEY ask are submitted in advance, and the people who wind up getting chosen to ask their question are the ones who are asking about some point that the candidate wants to make.

The campaigns always create an environment for these “town hall” meetings by which anyone would feel too intimidated to point out if the candidate was dodging their question with a non-answer.

For a certain type of personality, the “town hall” format gives them the chance to appear to be talking with people – even though the only people who get talked to are the ones who have indicated a willingness to shut up and accept whatever the candidate spews.

In that sense, even formal structured debates are a preferable format for getting some tidbit of new, useful and real information, and that statement comes from someone who detests what campaign debates have become.

THE PROBLEM WITH debates is that, all too often, they are designed to promote the logo of whichever television station happens to be broadcasting the event. They become the personal interview with the news anchor of that station, who is usually more interested in showing off on national television – rather than getting at the truth.

The broadcaster’s ego actually gets in the way of finding out the truth.

But at least there, the two candidates are put on equal footing. They are forced to address questions that were not of their choosing (and can be openly hostile, as anyone who remembers the ABC-sponsored debate just before the Pennsylvania primary will recall the sight of Obama being verbally smacked around by George Stephanopoulos).

People who get tense when having their political platitudes questioned can appear to lose their temper or become befuddled. That is McCain’s concern with a debate, and why he’d prefer to avoid the format in coming months.

HE EVEN ADMITTED it Saturday when he told the Latino political group, “Senator Obama, whose talent as an orator, as you might notice, is somewhat greater than mine.”

This is about trying to use tactics to gain an upper hand for what he perceives as his strengths. I don’t blame him for trying.

But there comes a point when it becomes repetitive, and insulting to the intelligence of the American people to expect us to believe that the fact that no “town hall” meetings have yet taken place is somehow a negative against Obama.

For what it is worth, I expect there to be some use of the “town hall” format to take place during the upcoming months. I hope they occur in addition to formal debates, the speeches the candidates make to special interest groups and the fluff parades and other pageantry that all combines to give us a picture of the two major candidates who want to be Leader of the Free World for the next four years.

NO ONE COMPONENT of the campaign season is more significant than any other. It is the mixture that makes the concept of political campaigns an interesting (if often infuriating) process.

There’s one other concept I will share with you. It is a rule I developed for myself in covering campaign activity when trying to figure out who is succeeding in gaining popular support and who is failing.

The first candidate to try to make an issue out of “My opponent will not debate me” is a loser. Invariably, the issue gets tossed out when a candidate’s struggling campaign is having too much trouble getting anyone to pay them any attention.

SO THEY CRY and whine that it’s their opponent’s fault, rather than figure out why their message of what they stand for is not catching on with the electorate.

Now, I’ll be the first to concede that McCain is not claiming Obama “won’t debate me.” (Technically, McCain doesn’t want any debates). But his continued complaints about political programs using a “town hall” format sounds way too similar, even though the phrase “he won’t town hall me” is awkward.

I hope McCain snaps out of using this lame excuse of an issue. Because in my mind, it made his presidential campaign a loser on Day One.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Republican presidential hopeful John McCain offered up this speech Saturday ( to a gathering of Latino politicos in Washington.

Aside from McCain’s “town hall” shot at Barack Obama, the two candidates used their appeals ( to try to convince Latinos they are more sympathetic to the interests of Hispanic people than their opponent is.

On a slightly different subject, old-school political debates ( can be very informative, moreso than any "town hall" format session or television-oriented debate.

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