During last Thursday night’s Service Forum at Columbia University, John McCain hammered Barack Obama for declining to engage in a series of 10 town-hall style debates across the country in the run-up to the election. When Mr. McCain brought this challenge to the Illinois senator back in June, Obama seemed in a dominant position looking toward the conventions, and opted — probably sensibly — not to rock the boat. Now, however, the landscape has shifted; the McCain campaign owns the spotlight, the momentum, and the polls thanks in large part to Sarah Palin, and the Obama-ites are searching for an effective counter punch.
Certainly, when McCain jabs Obama for not agreeing to the additional debates, like he did Thursday, he scores credibility hits. But he may be leaving himself open to — and in fact even stewarding — an opportunity for a potentially devastating counter-attack, should Obama decide to act on it. The town hall-style debates proposed by McCain in June and refreshed Thursday night are likely an attempt to box Obama in to either agreeing to battle McCain on his own turf or declining and looking cowardly, but underneath that tactical layer, they could provide an opening for Obama to accomplish a number of his strategic necessities:
Despite the high profile of his battle with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama remains, in large part, a mystery to much of the country. The past months have proven that he wins people over once they get to know him, and so exposure to new audiences is a very good thing for Obama; 10 additional, nationally televised debates spattered across the country that would be watched by independents as well as Republicans would bring that in bushels.
The national obsession with Sarah Palin has sustained itself for a surprising two weeks and may continue. With no one listening to him, Obama is having a tough time controlling the tone of this election. Being able to split up the McCain-Palin ticket for these high-profile events would allow Obama to bring this campaign back to earth and refocus voters on the top of the ticket as well as the issues. And it seems, to this point, that Palin and McCain are significantly weaker campaigners when not together.
Be the dynamo
With a message based on empowerment and massive reform, Obama needs to come across to voters as proactive and effective. With the bold Palin move and its subsequent success, McCain has taken away some of Obama’s ability to claim that title of “dynamo.” Obama has got to change and control the direction of this election. Blowing up the landscape of the debates in this way will, if nothing else, rattle the current flow of events and show voters that he is willing to make some active moves.
Hammer home the specifics, clearly
Obama’s message, to those who have not spent much time listening to him, can seem muddled and devoid of memorable substance. He needs to give the people something to hold on to, something that isn’t a response to the McCain campaign, that isn’t a high-soaring vision, and that isn’t a laundry list of all the things he’s going to accomplish — “health care for every single American” can get lost among a machine-gun listing-off of the 15 things (despite their impact when examined independently) that we’ll get if he’s president. These debates would provide a pedestal for Obama to deliver the substance he needs to add to his message and drive it home, debate after debate. The Republicans are ahead in defining themselves to the American people, and Obama can’t afford to squander any opportunity to catch up.
In picking Sarah Palin, John McCain took control of this election by doing something dynamic — reckless, perhaps, but assuredly proactive — and that means something to voters who believe their government is broken. The voting populace wants Obama to make some waves and show that he is going to run out and meet problems head-on, actively seeking solutions. But in recent interviews with Obama, an undertone of “just trust me, it’ll work out” is lurking. In light of the way the Bush administration has handled answering to the American people — i.e. “Just trust us. We know better. It’ll work out.” — this could be a dangerous message to send.
Obama must now act swiftly, effectively, and boldly if he is to regain control of this election. McCain has laid out what has proven to be a clever tactic up to this point, but it could backfire if Obama seizes the opportunity. And with barely 50 days left until Nov. 4, those chances may be few and far between. Obama should jump on this one immediately.
Tom Pilla is co-founder of CNGSki, a non-profit, alternative-fuel ski shuttle based out of Boulder. He is a freelance writer and tutor, with backgrounds in management consulting and brand strategy.