For the last 10 days or so, the McCain campaign has been pretty aggressive in pushing its desire to have a series of town-hall debates with Barack Obama, with neutral audiences asking questions. Obama has publicly expressed some interest in the idea, prompting McCain to announce he’d like to see a total of 10 events, in addition to the three debates organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).
The two campaigns actually began discussions on the subject this week, though it appears the talks have broken down without any agreement.
The talks between the McCain and Obama campaigns on debates appear to have broken down, with Obama’s campaign — evidently concluding that the format could favor McCain, or at least give McCain some oxygen — offering just one town hall and one extra debate in response to McCain’s suggestion of 10.
“We fear that our negotiations over joint town hall meetings are turning into a debate about process,” writes McCain campaign manager Rick Davis to Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. “That is exactly what we have always hoped to avoid, and why we proposed a town hall format that would render many of these process issues moot. As Senator Obama has said, he is prepared to meet ‘anywhere, anytime’ for a town hall.”
Plouffe responds that “it’s disappointing that Senator McCain and his campaign decided to decline this proposal. Apparently they would rather contrive a political issue than foster a genuine discussion about the future of our country.”
When Plouffe referenced “this proposal,” he was talking about the Obama campaign’s suggestion that McCain and Obama meet for all of the CPD, plus another debate focused exclusively on foreign policy, plus a town-hall debate at a location to be determined.
The McCain campaign said this wasn’t good enough.
I’m actually a little surprised the McCain didn’t accept the Obama proposal. The notion that these two would meet 13 times (10 town-halls and three CPD debates) between now and November was never realistic, and the Obama campaign was offering to participate in more events than we’ve had in a presidential campaign in the modern era. If McCain is so anxious to get together, wouldn’t he prefer five to three?
Or maybe this wasn’t about actual debates at all, but rather, about McCain having something to whine about on the stump. It seems entirely likely, given the response today, that McCain wasn’t especially interested in 13 debates; he was interested in having Obama turn down his idea so he could complain about it.
For what it's worth, I’m actually glad the talks aren’t going anywhere. A lengthy series of debates undermines Obama’s financial advantage. A lot. Indeed, the whole thing is a double-edged sword — if Obama agrees to the lengthy series of debates, he gives up a key campaign edge; if Obama declines, McCain characterizes him as spineless.
The offer for five debates was pretty generous. Under the circumstances, I wouldn’t be surprised if the McCain campaign changes its mind and takes the offer — it’s unlikely to get a better one.