Thinking Outside The Debate Hall

DannyG | August 21, 2008
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To hear Barack Obama tell it, Campaign 2008 is all about change. Unfortunately, both he and John McCain today agreed to the same, tired routine of debates organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates for the past five presidential cycles. Sticking to the system – this year that means three presidential debates on Sept. 26, Oct. 7 and Oct. 15, and a vice-presidential debate on Oct. 2 – makes strategic sense for Obama. While it’s true that accepting a 20-year-old debate structure runs counter to Obama’s pitch as a change agent, the reality is that speaking off-the-cuff isn’t Obama’s strong suit. He’s gives a great speech, but Obama proved at Saturday’s Saddleback Church forum, where he and McCain answered the same questions in back-to-back appearances, that he is more professorial than presidential – and not necessarily a good professor. But McCain should know better than to toe the debate line. He is the mirror opposite of Obama. He is lousy at giving prepared speeches but excels at connecting with voters in question-and-answer sessions. That’s true of town-hall meetings, podium-style debates and innovative forums like Saddleback. So why is McCain settling for just three structured, predictable debates? He needs to think outside the debate hall – and do it in a way that is perfect for the Internet video era. He should take a cue from Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican elected president and a man remembered for his anti-slavery debates with Stephen Douglas. The seven official Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois’ 1858 U.S. Senate race aren’t the model McCain needs to remember, though. They are rightly remembered for their great pageantry and oratory, but they also featured plenty of mud-slinging by both candidates. Not much has changed from then until today. The better strategy for McCain to follow is the one that Lincoln employed to force Douglas to confront the challenge face-to-face. Lincoln followed his long-time rival around the state. He was in the Chicago audience when Douglas announced his re-election bid and responded to Douglas' comments the next day. He later followed Douglas to Bloomington and Springfield. Douglas ultimately agreed to more structured debates in order to regain some control over the confrontations and to avoid charges of political cowardice. That tactic could be even more powerful today. Imagine McCain following Obama from city to city, answering him point for point and having staffers capture it all on video. The press would love it – and even if their infatuation with Obama keeps them from reporting on the encounters fairly, the McCain team could blast the footage across the Web. It’s exactly the kind of thing a maverick should be doing in this new media age.

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