Saturday, August 16, 2008

The faith driven debate

So what to make of the "faith based" debate between Barack Obama and John McACain that was sponsored by the reverend Rick Warren, and that just ended a few minutes ago? The MSNBC commenters felt John McCain hit one out of the ballpark, whereas Barack Obama seemed cautious, and given to over-intellectualizing in his responses to questions. Meanwhile, over at Crooks and Liars John Amato had this to say: "Obama was thoughtful throughout... McCain is just stumping. That’s what Republicans do."

I think both of these judgments are correct. However, I would caution the MSNBC crew against giving McCain the win here. Consider:

1) McCain was in his element. This is an evangelical church with an audience that was predominantly white, and conservative (with a smaller chorus of liberals thrown in for balance). The questions that were posed were very clearly questions that addressed the ideological concerns of the assembled audience. McCain responded by telling them what they wanted to hear, plain and simple. There was little attempt at nuance on his part. His pithy statement on how best to confront evil ("defeat it") was the "correct" answer, given the audience, and yet it was also one that bears almost no relation to reality as we experience it. How often are complex international disputes so easily divided into categories of good vs. evil? And how often can one simply march one's troops in to the evildoer's camp and "defeat him?" I would suggest that the easier it is to dissect a crises into categories of good vs. evil, the more difficult it is to simply send in the cavalry and "defeat" the evil side, and vice versa. The current crisis in Georgia, or the Chinese occupation of Tibet are good cases in point: they are easily seen for the nakedly expansionistic acts of aggression they are, but our hands are tied by the fact that a direct military confrontation with Russia or China would likely have devastating consequences for all parties involved. So we hem and haw, throw up our hands, and protest "most vociferously" at the UN security council, but in the end we do nothing, because the simple fact is we can do nothing.

2) Obama was the outsider. Pretty much every question, from those concerning gay rights, to embryonic stem cell research, to taxes, was a question that someone coming from Obama's perspective could not respond to in such a forum by appeal to platitudes. So his answers, perforce had to be measured, his explanations more labored, his reasoning more thoughful.

But the flip-side of this is that in working so hard to shore up his base, McCain has given his critics a hour soundbites from which to chose from to paint him as an individual who holds unpopular positions that are in some ways even more extreme than George W. Bush. It would be difficult to watch that interview, for instance, and not come away with the feeling that a McCain administration would see the nation's military marching into a host of conflicts that the country can neither stomach, nor for that matter afford.

For this reason alone, Obama should be very happy about what happened tonight. Consider this: the Obama campaign now has a video clip of John McCain announcing his disdain for every Supreme Court justice currently serving who is a supporter of Roe vs. Wade. Whatever the actual number of disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters who voiced their intention to vote for John McCain in November, this single statement by John McCain has likely just ensured that 90% of them will re-think their opposition to Barack Obama a re-join the fold.

Conventional wisdom has it that presidential candidates drift to the left or right of the political spectrum (depending on party and ideology) during the presidential primaries, and then swing back to the middle once they've secured their party's nomination, realizing that moderate undecideds determine the outcome of the general election. Yet, this is not at all what we witnessed tonight. What we saw from John McCain could perhaps best be characterized as an anti-Sistah Souljah moment. This could very well be the moment that the "maverick"John McCain died, and the ideological standard-bearer, the spiritual son of Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Jerry Falwell, and George W. Bush was born again.

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