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|August 28-September 3, 2008
Back to Letters
McCain knows how to make up his mind and live with the results.
by Paul Danish
About halfway through John McCain’s appearance at the Saddleback Church’s Civil Forum a couple of weeks ago I remembered an off-hand remark Clifton Grubbs, my economics professor at CU, made nearly half a century ago: “The future,” he said, “belongs to those who can make up their minds and live with the results.”
In case you missed it (and a lot of people did, because it took place on a Saturday night during the Olympics) the Saddleback Civil Forum consisted of church pastor Rick Warren conducting back-to-back, hour-long interviews with Obama and McCain during which he asked them both the same set of questions.
The result, to the surprise of much of the national press corps, was arguably the most compelling political television since the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960.
Obama turned in a terrific performance — better than any he had against Hillary. But McCain still won hands down.
Obama’s answers were those of a highly intelligent, thoughtful and articulate man examining and weighing hard questions with a decent respect for their complexity. They were reflective, disarming, often witty and offered insight into his thought processes. But you came away with the impression that Obama’s answers were a work in progress.
McCain’s answers were the answers a man who had answers, not a man who was looking for them. His answers were direct, succinct to the point of being laconic, and on point. They hit you between the eyes and resonated, even if you disagreed with them.
Kennedy’s opening remarks in the first debate had the same effect. (Nixon’s approach, oddly enough, more closely paralleled Obama’s at Saddleback.)
McCain came across as a man who knew his own mind — and who had learned the hard way that life often consists of having to choose among lousy alternatives (or competing good ones), but who also knew that choosing, and being prepared to live with the consequences of your choices, is the heart and soul of leadership — presidential or any other kind.
Obama’s answers, impressive as they were, were not those of a man who had learned how to choose and live with the consequences of his choices. The upshot was that Obama sounded like a man ready to be president of the faculty senate while McCain sounded like a man ready to be president of the United States.
Obama is lucky that the Saddleback Civil Forum occurred on a Saturday night in mid-August instead of on a weeknight in mid-October, when tens of millions of voters would have been watching and getting ready to make up their minds. If it had, there is a real chance he would have lost the election on the spot.
It’s a pretty safe bet Obama has been reviewing and revising the acceptance speech he is going to deliver on Aug. 28, in the light of the Saddleback experience.
What might he say? Chances are, at the very least, he will tell people, with considerable precision and candor, what he intends to do if he is elected president — and thus give some specificity to the concepts of “hope,” “audacity” and “change.” He will give particular attention to issues like economic recovery and energy, the last an area where McCain spent the summer defining Mr. Yes-We-Can as Mr. No-We-Can’t.
Don’t be surprised if part of the speech sounds like a State-of-the-Union address, with a laundry list of solutions designed to fire the imagination (and with an applause line built in after every third sentence.) Doing this much is relatively easy — and absolutely essential, because if Obama doesn’t (finally) define his own mantras, McCain will do it for him.
The hard part is going to be dealing with the Commander-in-Chief issues — Iraq, the war on terror, Georgia, his personal patriotism and his fitness for command. Last week Obama dealt with these (poorly, I thought) in a speech to the VFW, which might be a preview of what he’s going to say Aug. 28. In it he combined his increasingly untenable position on the surge (I opposed it, it worked, but I’m still glad I opposed it) and his support for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq with accusing McCain of questioning his patriotism.
A day earlier McCain had told the same audience that Obama was proposing to throw away a hard-won victory for political advantage. But while Obama plausibly claimed McCain was challenging his patriotism (McCain claims he was questioning his judgment), he didn’t offer a convincing defense of it, i.e. a compelling reason why abandoning a war that we are winning after the sacrifice of considerable blood and treasure is a patriotic thing to do. If he doesn’t come up with a convincing reason tonight, he’ll be in real trouble.
Obama’s problem here is that the surge and a timetable for withdrawal are the two areas where he has made up his mind and is prepared to live with the results. Whether the American people are prepared to live with them remains to be seen.
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