OP-EDS

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October 10, 2008

Calling all crazies

The true value of the town hall is not to field questions from “ordinary Americans,” but rather, to hear from Americans who in their eccentricities are decidedly not ordinary, thereby challenging the candidates to depart from their talking points and confront the situation at hand..

[img id="76812" align="alignleft"] The most telling statement in Tuesday’s presidential debate may have been one of the most self-evident. Taking issue with the need to prioritize his agenda as president, John McCain fell back on the oldest crutch of all: American exceptionalism.

“We’re not rifleshots here,” McCain said. “We are Americans.”

Well, no one is going to argue with that. Except on Tuesday evening, that can-do spirit was nowhere to be found in the auditorium in Nashville. Instead, viewers, and more importantly, the two candidates, were treated to an exercise in American mediocrity. Undecided voters posed question after obvious question about that great ignored demographic in campaign rhetoric: the Middle Class, which infused the debate with all the candor and spontaneity of a three-month-old can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup.

In doing so, the so-called “town hall debate” became anything but, losing whatever utility it may have promised. The true value of the town hall—or any forum that encourages audience participation—is not to field questions from “ordinary Americans,” but rather, to hear from Americans who in their eccentricities are decidedly not ordinary (or so we’d like to believe), thereby challenging the candidates to depart from their talking points and confront the situation at hand.

Take, for example, the scene that unfolded at the first CNN/YouTube debate during the Democratic primaries. Jered Townsend of Clio, Michigan, looking the part in a sleeveless T-shirt, shorts, and a moustache, asked the assembled candidates “if our babies are safe?”—an unusually worded but reasonable enough question, it seemed, until he revealed his baby: a four-foot-long assault rifle.

As millions of Americans cringed at the sight of this man from rural Michigan wielding an assault rifle—and in a swing state, no less!—the question ultimately revealed far more about Joe Biden than it did about Jered Townsend.

“I tell you what, if that’s his baby he needs help,” Biden said, a look of concern spreading across his face. He went on to question whether Townsend was mentally qualified to own a gun, and, when CNN’s Anderson Cooper attempted to move on to the next question, the scrappy kid from Scranton got in one last shot.

“I hope he doesn’t come looking for me,” Biden said.

There, in a nutshell, was a full demonstration of Joe Biden’s range as a presidential candidate: at once authoritative, bordering on self-righteous, and loose-lipped to the point of nonchalance. More importantly, his answer would have been impossible in Tom Brokaw’s over-sanitized town hall, where audience members were thoroughly screened and explicitly forbidden to depart from the script.

At their best, town halls elicit revelations of substance as well as style. John McCain’s critique of Obama’s foreign policy—that he’s naive—stems almost exclusively from remarks the Illinois senator made at that same YouTube debate. To separate questions about Pakistan and meeting with hostile heads of state, Obama’s now-familiar answers were candid and more than a little shocking. Forced to elaborate on a position he had never previously taken, Obama permanently altered the direction of the campaign, paving the way for Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m. phone call” and establishing a position he still defends to this day.

Tuesday night, there was no one to ask the questions most of us have too much sense to ask. No one to ask Barack Obama—or, for that matter, John McCain—if he is black enough, as happened in the YouTube debate, or to ask the candidates, in all seriousness, how they’d react to an extraterrestrial crisis. And so pundits will point to McCain’s “that one” reference as the night’s signature moment and talk about who “connected” best with the American people. But such analysis ignores the underlying cause: A political culture that usually churns out eccentrics like a Puritan housewife churns out butter instead stuck to the script, and in the election’s penultimate showdown, it was the American people who dropped the ball.

Tim Murphy is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history. He is a Maroon Editorial Board member.