Saturday, August 16, 2008

Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency: First Impressions

Okay, so it's another current events post. But this is important. This article assumes that you have watched the forum or have read a transcript. I think it's understandable without having done so, but having watched the forum will provide a better understanding.

First, some general observations on the format. I loved this format. It provided clear contrast between Sens Obama and McCain, and the extra time provided to each candidate really gave us a clear insight into each one. We need more forums like this. Not necessarily before religious congregations, but in a plethora of venues. Pastor Rick Warren provided both candidates with questions that were over-all neutral. Maybe not in the particulars, some questions were better for one than the other, but over-all, it was a fair and honest attempt to provide the candidates with time and space to express themselves.
Second, who did better? Over-all, I think that Sen. McCain did a great deal better. If we want to talk about a winner as in a normal debate, Sen. McCain would be it. This will be clear as I move into the direct contrast in answers.

General contrast:

Both candidates seemed very relaxed, got several laugh and applause lines, had a good chemistry with the moderating pastor, and gave good answers most of the time. It should be obvious by now that McCain is very comfortable in forums where he is being surprised by questions and is more free-form. It should also be just as obvious that Sen. Obama is not as comfortable in these forums as he is with more set-piece engagements. At no point has this contrast between the two candidates been more clear. Sen. Obama gave 'filler words' on almost every question, lots of 'uh' and 'um' as he was thinking about how to answer the question. Sen. McCain gave a few of these as well, but not nearly as many. And while Sen. Obama paused after almost every question, Sen. McCain answered quickly, occasionally even before Pastor Warren had finished his question. And I also think that Sen. McCain's answers were, generally, far more direct and straight forward than Sen. Obama's. Sen. Obama seemed to want to answer with a great deal of straddling, trying to express a desire to hear or consider 'both' sides of an issue. Sen. McCain, on the other hand, often answered with direct 'yes' or 'no' answers, then backed those up with reasoning and anecdotes.

I think that we can draw some important conclusions from this general contrast. These statements are my observations on thinking based off of observing the behavior in this forum; I do not claim to speak for, or know the actual thinking of, either of the Senators. What I see is one Senator, McCain, who knows what he believes in and will govern from that philosophy, and one Senator, Obama, who isn't so assured of what he believes and will rely more on advice and reason than on centered ideals.

Now for some specific contrasts:

First, on the question of the definition of marriage. Both senators gave the same definition, between a man and a woman, and also made it clear that rights shouldn't be denied to homosexuals. Neither candidate specifically mentioned this group, but we all know that it was to whom they referred. They were speaking, of course, about the right to form civil unions or legal contracts. However, the major contrast to me is in their choice of words. Sen. Obama said that he is secure enough in his faith and marriage to 'afford those rights' to others. Sen. McCain, on the other hand, said that they have these rights and shouldn't be denied. I cannot stress how important this difference is. While it might seem that the difference is simply semantic, or choice of words, it does make for a serious look into the thinking of the candidates. Both of these men are politicians, they are the deciding force in our government. Which would you rather have? A politician who recognizes your rights as existent, or one who is 'willing' to provide them?
When it came to the question on the existence of evil and what should be done, I think both candidates provided solid, well reasoned, and well spoken answers. I also think that both candidates could learn a little from the answer of the other. Sen. Obama gave some good specific examples, such as referencing the current genocide in Darfur, but he also talked about the evil occurring right here in the United States. I think this was a good answer overall, especially considering the evil committed here in the US. However, McCain did make a transcendent moment. Again, with a straight forward answer he said 'Defeat it.' and paused for the applause. He then followed this up with a discussion of Al Qaeda and Islamic Fundamentalism. While not quite an Evil Empire statement a la President Reagen, it was still more than President Bush has really done and defined the Islamic Fundamentalist movement overall as an evil movement. We need more politicians in this country and internationally willing to do this.
Both candidates gave some pretty standard answers about taxes and the rich from an ideology/party stand point. Sen. Obama did define rich as anyone making over $250,000, and stated that he feels the tax code should be used to create a fair, balanced income status. This is standard Democrat fare. Sen. McCain refused to actually define 'rich' from an income standpoint. He made a good point about small businessmen and women working 16 hours a day and some (probably a reference to Sen. Obama) would consider rich. He also said that he doesn't want to raise anyones taxes, and what's really important is lowering government spending. While as Sen. Obama tried to justify higher taxes by talking about schools and roads and other such things, Sen. McCain made clear that spending is the problem by talking about a couple of pork-barrel spending items. Also, while I don't think Sen. Obama gave any 'gaffes' in his answer here, I do think Sen. McCain made a gaff when said 'five million' would be a good number. He clarified his remark well, by first saying that we cannot really give an income value to the term 'rich'. But this answer will be used against him.
When Pastor Warren asked about Supreme Court justices was a defining moment in the forum. Obama talked about Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Roberts. He claimed that Thomas was not sufficiently experienced for the position, not a strong enough thinker and jurist at the time of his nomination. He might be right here as I am not aware enough of Justice Thomas to argue against it, but I think Charles Krauthammer of Fox News gave a good point when he said Sen. Obama should not be talking about experience needed for high office. However, his objections to Justices Scalia and Roberts were specifically political, and in their view of the role of government. Sen. McCain spoke specifically against all four of the Justices generally called 'Liberal' and the current court. However, he backed this up with good reasoning. He stated that the Justices should be nominated and confirmed based on their Constitutional views, and specifically on the strict interpretation of the Constitution. Here, he is absolutely correct. An odd statement from Obama was when he said that the Court's primary function is to protect the Courts and Legislator from Executive encroachment. He's kind of correct here, but misses the point. What about the Court protecting the people from Government encroachment of individual rights?
Finally, I want to talk about their answer to their great moral failures and America's. Sen. Obama provided, for himself, a fairly 'light' answer about drug and alcohol use. He justified this answer talking about selfishness and how it lead him astray for a true moral path. I call this a light answer because, while honest, I think that he could find a better answer and provided a more introspective, and less well reported, failing. Perhaps even a couple of things he should admit to be failings, but hasn't as yet? Sen. McCain stated the failing of his first marriage was his greatest moral failure. Considering that this man has admitting to providing the North Vietnamese at least some American secrets while being tortured, this was such an honest and wonderful answer that I almost cried. I myself am a divorcée and can agree with him here. He also didn't provide any excuses for his actions. The answers on America's moral failings were even more illuminating. Sen. Obama talked about a failure to support those who are in lower incomes, and called this a failure because he suggested that equal opportunity isn't there. Facts do not support this conclusion, as most people and families in this country move quickly from the lower income levels to at least middle, if not upper, incomes over time. Sen. McCain talked about a failure to engage in issues greater than our own self-interest. I think we was talking both about us as individuals (a common theme with Sen. McCain) as well as the United States taking action in some cases where the government felt our national interest was involved while not taking action in other, similar situations where the government did not feel our national interest was at stake.

Defining Moments, and not necessarily good ones:

Actually, it was talking on the same issue, if not the same question, where I felt both candidates had their defining moments of this forum. I think that for Sen. McCain, his moment was positive, but for Sen. Obama it was negative. The issue was energy, but again, it was at different questions.

For Sen. McCain, it came when asked about a position held ten years ago but now abandoned. For McCain, he immediately said 'Off-shore Drilling'. His total answer was why it was defining, but it was using this question to provide it that makes it so positive. Because he both admits to it being a change, and because he makes it clear that it's a change of understanding rather than being a political move. And his follow-up, expanding on off-shore drilling and general energy policy. Explore every option, move forward on all fronts, and provide the United States with more energy, and cleaner energy. He also made a good point that off-shore drilling is a national security issue. Replacing possible domestic sources with foreign sources causes a large amount of American capitol to be moved off-shore, and often to countries that are ideologically, politically, or morally dangerous to the United States. Sen. McCain's statements here were spot on, well delivered, and had evident passion.

For Sen. Obama, it came with his very last question. He was asked what he would say if there were no repercussions. Sen. Obama gave a long winded answer, talking about getting everyone together and making sacrifices to create a more energy-efficient economy. This man really just doesn't get how dangerous these kinds of statements can be. America is about freedom. I'm not opposed to sacrificing for others, for the greater good, or for freedom. But government mandated energy conservation is an attack on freedom. Every American individual and business has the self-interest in conserving as much energy as possible for simple economic reasons. We don't need our government coming in and rationing energy use, which is precisely what any government mandated attempts to greater conservation. However, I do think that Sen. Obama's statements to the previous question about what to tell people opposed to the venue (a religious congregation) were pretty good. Especially when he talked about the forum being necessary to provide better insight into the candidates, and his knock against negative politics was brilliant.

There was so much to this forum, that I couldn't hope to cover all of it. I seriously hope that we see more of these both in this election, and in future ones.

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