Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stumped

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2008 at 10:39 PM

The New York Times political blogger Katharine Q. Seelye tallies the scorecard from Saturday’s “civil forum” in Saddleback, Calif. — which, surprisingly, due to the thoughtful inquiries and admirable evenhandedness of pastor/moderator Rick Warren, turned out to be precisely that. The bigger shock, to this humble and admittedly biased observer, came with the almost unanimous assertion (among those professional asserters, anyway) that John McCain had cleaned Barack Obama’s clock, with “a lot of definite language, sloganeering and waving the flag,” in the words of Northeastern University's Alan Schroeder. Yeah? Definite language, sloganeering, flag-waving — does any of this sound familiar? For all of Obama's attempts to link McCain to George W. Bush, it seems the Arizona senator is now doing the heavy lifting himself. Compare:

* Does evil exist, and if it does, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?
“Evil does exist,” Mr. Obama said, pointing to Darfur, city streets and parents who abuse their children. He said it had to be confronted but advised humility and caution, because “a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we are trying to confront evil.”
Mr. McCain: “Defeat it.” And pursue Osama bin Laden, he said, to “the gates of hell.”
* Should we pay good teachers more money? (This is admittedly a trickier question for a Democrat who relies on teachers unions that oppose merit pay.)
Mr. Obama: “I think that we should, and I’ve said this publicly, that we should set up a system of performance pay for teachers negotiated with teachers, work with the teachers to figure out the assessment so they feel like they are being judged fairly, that it is not the whim of the principal, that it is not based on a single test but the basic notion that teaching is a profession, that teachers are underpaid. So we need to pay them all more and create a higher base line but then we should also reward excellence.”
Mr. McCain: “Yes. And find bad teachers another line of work.”
* Perhaps most striking was their answers on why they wanted to be president.
Mr. Obama: “You know, I remember what my mother used to tell me. I was talking to somebody a while back and I said the one time that she would get really angry with me is if she ever thought that I was being mean to somebody, or unfair to somebody. She said, imagine standing in their shoes. Imagine looking through their eyes. That basic idea of empathy, and that, I think, is what’s made America special is that notion that everybody has got a shot. If we see somebody down and out, if we see a kid who can’t afford college, that we care for them, too. And I want to be president because that’s the America I believe in and I feel like that American dream is slipping away.”
Mr. McCain: “I want to inspire a generation of Americans to serve a cause greater than their self-interest. I believe that America’s best days are ahead of us, but I also believe that we face enormous challenges, both national security and domestic, as we have found out in the last few days in the case of Georgia.”

Seelye's one-word summations of both senators' answers are equally striking: "discursive" for Obama and "pithy" for McCain. (She could have just as easily chosen "nuanced" and "pandering," respectively, but hey, it's her column.) Either Seelye and Schroeder are underestimating Americans' powers of perception, or I'm overestimating them. University of Alabama political scientist David Lanoue weighs in with this sad-but-pray-it-ain't-true opinion: “Obama’s answers were thoughtful and considered but a little meandering and not to the point. A lot of winning a debate is winning the sound-bite war, and McCain definitely won there.” Forget the political ramifications; that's unfortunate commentary on us as listeners. Digging into Seelye's first description reveals a telling, if entirely accidental, nugget of truth. After "passing aimlessly from one subject to another; digressive; rambling" comes an alternate definition of "discursive" — which, eerily, also seems to summon a certain approval-challenged regime: "proceeding by reasoning or argument rather than intuition." Yes. God forbid.

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