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Debate fails to rise to the occasion

By James Norman - posted Friday, 10 October 2008

The most recent presidential debate here in Nashville Tennessee was remarkably dour in tone, even as the two opponents sort to tear ideological strips off each other. Nashville is a setting that should have favoured McCain - he is leading Obama in Tennessee by about 10 points.

In this town famous for Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, its jukebox diners and leather boot stores, McCain should have felt right at home. Despite that, it was Obama supporters who were most visible on the streets and outside the gates on Belmont University last night.

The debate format was set to favour McCain also - a town hall style meeting of Wal-Mart Moms and Joe Six-Pack Dads - all of them undecided voters. Just average American voters, a world away from the cosmopolitanism of New York City.


The debate came on a day that the stock market closed 1,700 points lower than it had the last time the two contenders had debated, just a week before hand.

But even in the most loaded context imaginable, a day after the global stock market showed signs of faltering despite an unprecedented injection of US$700 billion into US credit markets, the overall tone of this the second of three presidential debates felt subdued and at times stifled.

Much of the debate focused on the economy, with McCain trying to push a mortgage plan that would see the treasury buying up mortgages that had gone bad and refinancing them at prices home owners could afford. If CNN's “worm” is anything to go by, the attempt to break through to wavering voters with the plan did not work.

Obama consistently placed the blame for the financial crisis on deregulation, while linking President George W. Bush’s lack of fiscal discipline to McCain. McCain tried to paint Obama as a big spender who favoured high taxes, while he was a maverick who was able to work with all parties towards pragmatic solutions.

Despite the more vicious turn the campaign has taken in recent days, both candidates restrained themselves from indulging in personal attacks.

The obvious decision by McCain not to bring up the allegations of Obama’s links with William Ayers reveals the Republican camp’s tactic to let Sarah Palin air the dirty laundry of the campaign. It was widely expected that had these allegations been raised Obama was poised to counter-punch.


But the kind of overwrought exuberance that we have come to expect from such debates was also missing here. There were no grand sweeping feel-good visions for America from either candidate - but more of a discernible quiet desperation to undermine the opponent with thrashed out policy positions and clearly contrived details.

McCain had obviously rehearsed his lines on an old energy bill that had passed through the senate with Obama’s approval vote. He said the bill was “loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies”.

“And it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it - you might never know? That one,” he added pointing toward Mr Obama acerbically, scrunching his chin and sounding a little like Vincent Price describing the Black Widow.

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First published in The Canberra Times on October 9, 2008.

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About the Author

James Norman is communications coordinator for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. He is a contributor to The Age, The Australian and the Herald Sun. He also wrote Bob Brown's biography for Allen & Unwin.

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