Editorial: The debates drone on

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Say this for the debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden: It was riveting compared to Tuesday night’s drone fest between their presidential running mates.
John McCain and Barack Obama gave long-winded testimony to their policy differences during the town hall meeting; moderator Tom Brokaw was helpless to rein them in. But in some instances they refined their stances. McCain even announced a new proposal to spend $300 billion in federal funds to buy distressed mortgages and renegotiate them with homeowners. Undecided voters among the 63.2 million viewers of the session who watched the debate on TV may have gotten some useful information from the candidates’ exchange. But those looking for a major gaffe or a home run from either man to make the decision easier probably went away disappointed.
Obama sees health care as a right; McCain says it’s a responsibility. Obama puts energy at the top of his priority list, followed by health care and education; McCain says all three areas can be treated as top priorities simultaneously. They discussed taxes, foreign policy, the war and, of course, the economy. And both had personal experiences to share. McCain spoke genuinely about service to his country; Obama talked about watching as his mother, dying of cancer, spent her last days haggling with an insurance company. Once again, supporters of each candidate heard a lot to reinforce their choice and not enough to change any minds.
These so-called debates and town hall meetings do as much to educate the public about the candidates’ style and demeanor as their policies. Obama was cool and a little professorial, but he showed cordiality to his opponent and looked at McCain as the Republican candidate spoke. For his part, McCain seemed to go for a walk around the stage several times as Obama spoke, apparently uninterested. At one point McCain referred to his opponent as “that one,” which had an off-putting ring to it. They criticized each other on several issues, with McCain more clearly on the attack.
Issues are more important than mannerisms, but a couple of ticks were too irritating to overlook. McCain repeatedly referred to the audience as “my friends,” which by the third time sounded trite, yet there were many more to go. And Obama had a habit early on in the debate of drawing out the word “and” ó aaaannnnddddd ó as he formulated his thoughts.
Post-debate polls found a majority of viewers found Obama more likeable, and that’s hard to dispute. He appeared more statesmanlike and at ease, and he showed respect for his opponent. The grenades McCain threw seemed to bounce off. Does Obama have substance as well as style? That, my friend, depends on which side of the political fence you’re on. An increasing number of people are satisfied that he has both.