Keeping Score: The Joint Town Hall Thing

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The first official, on the record call for a joint town hall came around May 10, from Mark McKinnon, McCain’s exiting media man, who said that the campaign was considering asking for them. “The town hall meeting is John’s best format,” McKinnon said. “He’s a natural campaigner up close with the public. That would test Obama’s claims that he wants a clean fight on the issues.”

Within hours, Obama was asked what he thought about summer town halls. He said in Oregon that he thought they were “a great idea” to debate “substantive issues,” though he added that “we would have to think through the logistics on this.”

So everyone saw McCain’s proposal yesterday coming. The McCain people think it is a win for them, for a few obvious reasons:

1. It forces Obama down to McCain’s level, away from the oratorical stadiums to the smaller give-and-take crowd.

2. Obama’s primary/caucus performance in these settings was more uneven than McCain’s. Though Obama beat Clinton in Iowa, I was witness to several town halls where Obama’s long, professorial answers nearly put to sleep otherwise excited crowds. (Counterpoint: Obama has improved since then.) McCain, by contrast, has built a political career on town halls. (Counterpoint: What plays in meet-and-greet New Hampshire does not necessarily work on national television.)

3. The joint appearance brands both candidates as reformers who want to change the way politics is done, which is a net gain for McCain, because Obama would prefer to own that mantle himself, and just isolate McCain as another George Bush. In other words, Obama’s campaign is focused on casting McCain as more of the same, while McCain wants to debate who will do a better job of changing the country. Putting them on the same level in that format is a win for McCain. (Look forward to many more McCain attacks on Obama’s reformist credentials, including a big flurry of noise if Obama announces, as expected, that he is opting out of public financing for the general.)

So are the town halls an obvious loss for Obama? Not necessarily. Sooner or later, Obama will have to demonstrate that he can go toe-to-toe with McCain on the same stage, and he might as well get started in the summer, when not many are paying attention, than in the fall during the formal debates. He could overperform, helping to remove concerns about his “experience.” Also, Obama will likely benefit from the pictures of the two men together. Not only is Obama much younger, but he is much taller. Side-by-side photos could be striking. Finally, it is worth mentioning that Obama actually probably wants to do the joint town halls. Both of these candidate deeply believe that they can change politics, and partisanship. It is not just talk.

Which all raises an interesting dilemma over the next few months for Obama. In the primaries, Obama’s post-partisan, new-politics message was a major asset, when compared with Hillary Clinton’s more conventional, tough-as-nails partisan style. In the general election, that same message could have an additional countervailing effect by leveling the playing field with McCain. A conventional, consultant-driven Democratic campaign for Obama would just isolate McCain as a Bush-style, third-term, old-world, same-old-same-old codger with no new ideas. The more that Obama allows for the fact that McCain is a different kind of Republican, the kind who will do town halls with his opponent, for instance, the better McCain’s chances. It will be revealing to see how Obama deals with this dilemma over the long haul.