On a dreary day when the Dow dropped 508 points at its close, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama held a town hall debate to cement in the minds of voters that each would be the best leaders going forward.
With Obama ahead in the polls and the gap between now and election day rapidly closing, McCain desperately needed this opportunity not just to appear presidential, but to convince wary and weary voters that we can rely on him to get us out of this economic mess. Oh, what a difference a month makes.
In a campaign that was largely thought to hinge on foreign policy experience and the war on terror, the former POW and his running mate Sarah Palin are now in the unfortunate position of having to talk about the very unglamorous problems with Wall Street, corporate greed, predatory lenders, subprime mortgages and government regulation.
And they have. Sarah Palin, in her debate against Joe Biden, offered her views on the economic crisis. And John McCain gave us his views last night from Belmont University in Tennessee. But it wasn’t their intricate plans to right the sinking economy, decrease spending, shift monies from here to there, or distribute tax cuts that should convince us they’re the ones for the job. It’s their overwhelming optimism in the strength of Americans and their collective pleas for more personal responsibility that should tell us something about the McCain/Palin ticket.
John McCain said over and over again tonight, in a variety of ways, that Americans are ready, willing and able to face any challenge with which we’re confronted, whether it’s healthcare, the energy crisis, entitlements, our military efforts, the housing crisis, or creating jobs. In confronting the economic unraveling, McCain said, "American workers are the best in the world. We gotta give them a chance to do their best again," and, "We’ll get our economy going again. Our best days are ahead of us." In discussing our foreign policy, he said, "America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world." He ended the night by telling us, "I believe in this country. I believe in its future. I believe in its greatness."
If McCain was a B-12 shot, Obama was a depressant. About the economic crisis, he spent more time scolding the outgoing president than reassuring voters that we can handle these problems. "When George Bush came into office, we had a surplus. Nobody’s completely innocent here," and, "This is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years." In what was a total non-sequitur, he even criticized President Bush for imploring Americans to pour money into the economy after 9/11. The American dream, to Barack Obama, is tarnished and rusting, and George Bush is the culprit. "Over the last eight years, we’ve seen that dream diminish."
The problem is, Barack Obama isn’t running against George Bush. And if Americans are equally as fatigued after two Bush terms, they certainly don’t want to dwell on it.
But mostly Obama failed to capitalize on an opportunity to put his community organizing skills to use and rally the American public to the kind of excitement he generated during the Democratic National Convention.
About our military might and so-called moral standing around the world, he said, "We don’t have the resources or the allies to do everything we should be doing," and, unfortunately for crises like Rwanda, Darfur and others, "We’re not going to be able to be everywhere, all the time." Even if you thought Obama won the night on points — and he may have — the message was depressing.
But the optimism of McCain and the cynicism of Obama was also delineated by McCain’s focus on American self-sufficiency and Obama’s insistence on government intervention.
Where McCain talked about enabling small businesses, homeowners and families to thrive in an otherwise strangled economy, Obama talked about the role that government must play. He resorted to fear-mongering to assure the relevancy of the government in overseeing our daily lives, especially where health care is concerned. He warned that under McCain’s plan, "the consumer protections that you need will not be available to you."
McCain pointed out just how government-centric Obama is, summing up his worldview as "Government will do this and government will do that." Obama even admitted his administration would mandate that you provide health insurance for your children, or you’ll be fined.
McCain’s optimism in the can-do might of average Americans was complemented by Sarah Palin’s call to action last week. During her debate with Joe Biden, she took a radical and risky stance, telling voters, "We need to make sure that as individuals we’re taking responsibility through all of this." Biden, on the other hand, opted to make the de rigeur invocation: "The economic policies of the last eight years have been the worst economic policies we’ve ever had. As a consequence, you’ve seen what’s happened on Wall Street."
It sounds innocuous and even prosaic, but personal responsibility is something politicians — especially politicians running for office — rarely, if ever, invoke. For them to do it on a national stage, in response to a national crisis, while running for president and vice president of the United States, is no small thing, and an incredibly telling window into John McCain and Sarah Palin’s worldview. It’s one that should highlight just how unique these candidates are.
It’s not rocket science. It’s the kind of cold, hard truth that can bring about real change, not the kind promised by the Obama-Biden ticket in the form of nanny-state paternalism and over-reaching government oversight.
John McCain may not have won the night. But he touched on a fundamental virtue of conservatism, one that is often reserved only for intellectual debates, not presidential ones. Americans need to stop looking to government to solve their problems and remember the values we have always said we prize — individual responsibility, accountability, self-sufficiency.
For the Obama/Biden ticket, it simply isn’t convenient to implore Americans to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and regain some agency in their own lives because then we wouldn’t need Barack Obama and Joe Biden to take care of us. Tonight, though the discourse was at times dominated on both sides by talking points and stump speech passages, one fundamental difference between John McCain and Barack Obama emerged: McCain thinks we can, and Obama thinks we can’t.