August 8, 2008

It’s not surprising at all that the Washington Post’s David Broder would prefer to see the presidential candidates stick to responsible, substance-driven campaigns. It’s also not surprising that Broder would enjoy a series of town-hall “debates” between the two candidates.

What’s odd, though, is seeing Broder try to connect the two, suggesting the lack of the latter has a causal relationship with the lack of the prior.

The first question I asked John McCain and then Barack Obama was: How do you feel about the tone and direction of the campaign so far?

No surprise. Both men pronounced themselves thoroughly frustrated by the personal bitterness and negativism they have seen in the two months since they learned they would be running against each other.

“I’m very sorry about it,” McCain said in a Saturday interview at his Arlington headquarters. “I think we could have avoided at least some of this if we had agreed to do the town hall meetings” together, as he had suggested, during the summer months.

First, it’s interesting that McCain is “very sorry” about the tone of the campaign now, given that it was just one week ago when McCain told reporters, “I’m proud of the campaign that we have run. I’m proud of the issues that we have been trying to address with the American people.”

Second, the notion that the campaigns “could have avoided … some of this” if there’d been 15 debates instead of three doesn’t make any sense. It’s a classic non sequitur — whether McCain runs a relentlessly negative, substance-free campaign has nothing to do with his proposal for extra debates.

And yet, Broder really seems to think there’s something to this.

Since the idea of joint town meetings was scrapped, the campaign has featured tough and often negative ads and speeches. […]

When I asked Obama how he thought the campaign could be returned to the issues, he said he hoped that the two conventions would “offer each party a chance to showcase its best ideas” and that the three scheduled presidential debates then “will allow people to see Senator McCain and myself interact in a way that keeps people more honest because you’re standing there face to face.”

I told Obama that McCain made exactly that point in arguing for the early joint appearances. What McCain actually said was: “When you have to stand on a stage with your opponent, as I’ve done in other campaigns, you obviously have a tendency to improve the relationship…. When you have to spend time with somebody, I think it changes the equation.”

Let’s not brush past this too quickly. McCain seems to have told Broder that he’s running a negative campaign because he hasn’t built up a strong enough rapport with his Senate colleague. He wants to “improve the relationship,” and “spend time with” Obama, but since there haven’t been extra debates, McCain feels justified launching a series of ridiculous attacks (which he’s “very sorry about”).

This is terribly silly. If McCain wanted to run a substantive, grown-up campaign, he could. Whether there are three debates or 300 is irrelevant. It’s not like McCain and Steve Schmidt got together one day on Cindy McCain’s private jet and said, “Well, I wasn’t going to accuse Obama of wanting to lose a war and of being responsible for high gas prices, but since there are only going to be three debates, we might as well.”

Why would Broder find this message compelling?

When Broder pressed the point with Obama, he responded, “I think the notion that somehow as a consequence of not having joint appearances, Senator McCain felt obliged to suggest that I’d rather lose a war to win a campaign doesn’t automatically follow. I think we each have control over ourselves and our campaigns, and we have to take responsibility for that.”

What a concept.

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