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The Barack and Joe Show

I watched the final Obama-McCain debate. As usual, I found it hard to judge a ‘winner’, despite the fact that I used to debate myself and have judged debates. The problem is that when I was a debating judge, one used evidence, arguments, and coherence as major criteria. Personality traits, quirks, body language, etc, were not really factors to be considered, becoming significant only if they distracted from the major points.

But political debates are not like that. Because they are not an extended discussion focused on a single proposition but jump from topic to topic, the secondary criteria become far more important. It becomes more like a beauty contest, valuing style over substance.

Personally, I thought McCain did a lot better than he had in the past. He seemed more alert and feisty (perhaps a little too feisty at times) but he still gives the appearance of someone barely controlling his anger. Obama as usual seemed unflappable, even though he seemed on the defensive quite often. From what I read yesterday of what the professional pundit class said immediately after the debate, they seemed to roughly share my views.

So what are we to make of the immediate snap polls that show Obama a clear winner? (See here, here, and here.)

In the debates, viewers seem to be largely looking, not so much at issues, but how the candidates comport themselves, which is why the calm and collected Obama is wiping the floor with McCain. I think that what this reveals is not good news for McCain. I think that many people have made up their minds for Obama and their feeling that he had handily ‘won’ the debate simply reflects their sense that his performance affirmed their choice, that they had no second thoughts or regrets.

There is a good analysis by Joe Klein about how the professional pundit class simply has not caught up with the reality that the public’s view of what is important has shifted drastically from what it was in the past, which is why they are caught flat-footed by events like these, not able to gauge the popular reaction.

Like almost everyone, I was startled by the starring role that Joe the plumber played in the debate. For those who haven’t seen the video of the exchange between Obama and Joe that was constantly being referred to, here it is:

There have been suggestions that Joe was a McCain plant. His story seemed a little too conveniently suited to McCain’s needs. A hard-working man, who after 15 years of putting in 12-hour days is finally able to buy a plumbing business that will provide him an income of $250,000, just the level at which Obama’s tax plan raises taxes. He is now aggrieved that just as his hard work is paying off after all these years, he will be paying higher taxes to support poorer people who (by implication) are lazy good-for-nothings unwilling to work as hard as him. It tied in too neatly with what the McCain camp was saying.

DailyKos has done some research on plumber Joe and seems to find that rather than being your regular plumber thinking of starting his own business, three other businesses are owned in the same neighborhood by someone with the same name as him. He also does not have a plumber’s license.

Furthermore he shares the same unusual last name as Robert Wurzelbacher, who is Charles Keating’s son-in-law and also lives in the Cincinnati area like Joe. If you recall, Keating went to jail for defrauding investors in the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s. John and Cindy McCain were Keating’s close friends and McCain was one of the Keating Five senators reprimanded for ethics violations for using his influence to help Keating.

It may be that Joe has no connections at all to Keating, and that Wurzelbacher is a common name in the Cincinnati area. I am sure that further inquiries will bring that information to light.

But while all very intriguing, for the purposes of the point I wish to make, it does not matter if Joe is a McCain plant or not. I had seen the exchange of Obama with Joe earlier this week and had been planning to write about it today. I thought the exchange was interesting and although Joe seemed to start and end the discussion as a McCain supporter, the way that Obama interacted with him was quite revealing about him and his policies.

It supported my view that these ‘debates’ should not be moderated at all but simply a free exchange between voters and the candidates so that we have more of these kinds of Joe-Obama discussions.

The voters could be selected randomly, like juries are, and they could ask the candidates anything they like and be allowed one follow up question, with the only restriction being a time limit for their questions to avoid speechifying. The only role for the moderator would be to keep tabs on the questioner’s time.

I would not bother seeking out only so-called independents either. If people are genuinely uncommitted at this late stage, that means they have not really been paying attention. It should not matter if some of the people selected are rabid partisans out to ‘get’ the opposing candidate with difficult questions or throw softballs at their own or are even nutcases asking off-the-wall questions. How candidates respond to such people says a lot about them, and we are likely to learn a lot more about them in this format than from the current one that favors regurgitation of talking points and bits of stump speeches.

The trouble with having the present professional-journalist-as-moderator format is that these establishment journalists select questions about the kinds of things that they want to talk about and are drearily predictable. As a result, even the people offering up questions at these ‘town hall’ sessions tend to pose the kinds of questions that they think the moderators will like and thus select. No wonder these debates tend to be snoozers.

I think seeing more encounters like Obama and Joe (whether he was a McCain plant or not) would be far more interesting.

POST SCRIPT: Palin supporters

Al Jazeera interviews some of the people attending a Sarah Palin rally. Disturbing.

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