That debate at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, was no town hall meeting. It was highly ritualized Kabuki Theater.

To begin with, instead of just letting the first 5,000 people to show up into the Curb Event Center and taking questions from the audience at random, The Gallup Organization hand-picked 80 uncommitted voters from the Nashville area to participate. What’s this fetish the MSM has with uncommitted voters? Allowing a committed voter to ask a partisan question gives the candidate from the opposing party a chance to rebut a claim or make a case for a divergent position – and, just maybe, to change someone’s mind.

Of course, it’s easier for 80 people to pass through metal detectors than 5,000, but this feat was accomplished when Elton John threw a fund-raising concert at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall in April attended by Hillary Clinton and her family (all of whom were under Secret Service protection). So the end result was that this crowd wasn’t a bunch of citizens just like you and me – and their selection was anything but democratic.

Moderator Tom Brokaw sifted through their questions plus the “tens of thousands” E-mailed by viewers – yup, there’s that MSM filter VP candidate Sarah Palin objected to during her debate with her counterpart Joe Biden last week – and chose questions on the same topics that journalists have repeatedly asked the candidates during previous debates instead of the sorts of off-beat and illuminating questions Rick Warren put to the candidates. Consequently, though neither had seen the questions in advance, they certainly had heard variations of them before and were able to lapse into rote recitations of oft-heard sound bites from well-rehearsed stump speeches.

The first question (“With the economy on the downturn and retired and older citizens and workers losing their incomes, what’s the fastest, most positive solution to bail these people out of the economic ruin?”) set the tone for the evening:

Obama: Blah, blah, blah “worst financial crisis since the Great Depression” blah, blah, blah “a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain” blah blah blah “rescue package”  blah, blah, blah “strong oversight” blah, blah, blah “cracking down on CEOs” blah, blah, blah “tax cuts for the middle-class” blah, blah, blah “then long-term we’ve got to fix our health care system, we’ve got to fix our energy system.”

McCain: Blah, blah, blah “I have a plan” blah, blah, blah “energy independence” blah, blah, blah “keep Americans’ taxes low” blah, blah, blah “stop this spending spree that’s going on in Washington” blah, blah, blah “a package of reforms.”  

The only non-boilerplate from this exchange that actually answered the question about the “fastest solution” out of the financial crisis was McCain’s promise to “order the secretary of the treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate [the loans] … at the diminished value of those homes [so people are] able to make those payments and stay in their homes” – but it was a restatement of provisions that had been built into the compromise bailout package that Congress finally passed, which Obama quickly pointed out (no doubt wishing he had thought to mention it first).

Though Brokaw promised “a wide-ranging discussion” his predictable choices amongst the questions guaranteed that viewers would get anything but. Just three questions were unexpected or offbeat. Two were Brokaw’s (“Is health care in America a privilege, a right, or a responsibility?” and “[E]stablish tonight the Obama doctrine and the McCain doctrine for the use of United States combat forces in situations where there’s a humanitarian crisis, but it does not affect our national security”) and the last one, which was E-mailed by a viewer (“What don’t you know and how will you learn it?”)

For the record, Obama says we had a “moral obligation” to intervene to stop the Holocaust, thinks health insurance is a “right” and there’s apparently nothing he doesn’t know, judging from his answer. McCain believes the U.S. “must do whatever we can to prevent genocide,” thinks the health insurance is a “responsibility” and he doesn’t know “what all of us don’t know, and that’s what’s going to happen both here at home and abroad.”

Aside from the ritualistic questions, several other stylistic formalities of the Kabuki drama were scrupulously observed:

† Thanking the voter for his or her question (Obama: “Well, Alan, thank you very much for the question”; McCain: “Alan, thank you for your question”) and flattering the voter’s acumen (McCain: “Well, thank you, Oliver, and that’s an excellent question”; Obama: “Katie, it’s a terrific question”). 

† Offering a soupçon of humor, as when Brokaw asked McCain who he would pick as treasury secretary should he be elected and McCain answered, “Not you, Tom.”

† Honoring a member of the armed services in the audience. McCain was warm and effusive (“Well, thank you, Terry. … [E]verything I ever learned about leadership I learned from a chief petty officer. And I thank you … my friend. Thanks for serving), while Obama was dutiful, like a child who doesn’t want to kiss his elderly aunt’s cheek because of her hairy wart but knows he has no choice (“Well, Terry, first of all, we honor your service, and we’re grateful for it”).

This “town hall” format presidential debate differed from the first standard format debate only in that Brokaw – unlike his PBS counterpart Jim Lehrer (second item) – made a show of trying to maintain control of the proceedings: “May I remind both of you, if I can, that we’re operating under rules that you signed off on and when we have a discussion, it really is to be confined within about a minute or so”; “I’m trying to play by the rules that you all established. One minute for discussion”; and “Gentlemen, you may not have noticed, but we have lights around here. They have red and green and yellow and they are to signal …” But in the end, Brokaw gave it up:

Obama: [J]ust a quick follow-up on this. I think…

McCain: If we’re going to have follow-ups, then I will want follow-ups, as well.

Brokaw: No, I know. So but I think we get at it …

McCain: It’d be fine with me. It’d be fine with me.

Brokaw: … if I can, with this question.

Obama: Then let’s have one.

Brokaw: All right, let’s have a follow-up.

McCain: It’d be fine with me.

Obama: Just … a quick follow-up, because I think … this is important.

Brokaw: I’m just the hired help here, so, I mean …

Obama: You’re doing a great job, Tom. …

McCain: And, Tom, if — if we’re going to go back and forth, I then — I’d like to have equal time to go — to respond to …

Brokaw: Yes, you get the…

McCain: … to … to … to…

Brokaw: … last word here, and then we have to move on.

Overall, Obama was better at couching his rhetoric in personal terms (“Well, Oliver, first, let me tell you what’s in the rescue package for you”; “Well, look, I understand your frustration and your cynicism”). And while McCain was more effective in attacking his opponent’s record and inexperience (“I wrote warning exactly of this crisis. Senator Obama’s name was not on that letter”; “[N]ailing down Senator Obama’s various tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. … But he wants to raise taxes. My friends, the last president to raise taxes during tough economic times was Herbert Hoover”) he did not land any knockout blows.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog, chosen an Official Honoree in the Political Blogs category by the judges of the 12th Annual Webby Awards (the Oscars of the online universe) along with CNN Political Ticker, Swampland (Time magazine) and The Caucus (The New York Times).

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