John McCain's Fake Town Halls

The John McCain town hall meeting is a fraud. Unlike other writers at HuffPost, I want John McCain to do well this summer, so it pains me to report this. "I believe the town hall meeting is the most important element of democracy," Senator McCain said last week in Portsmouth, Ohio. I wouldn't go that far, but I would hate to see one senator hand the election to another. It's not good for Senator Obama, who already exudes enough confidence to power a wind turbine; it's not good for us, because we profit from spirited debate. And isn't that what a town hall meeting is supposed to be?

The town hall meeting yesterday in Albuquerque, New Mexico is typical in that the real action is not on the ground in the small conference room of Hotel Albuquerque but in the internet air war waged at the same time. There's an old-fashioned quaintness to John McCain's insistence on the centrality of the town hall meeting -- even he doesn't really believe in it, for he always shapes his meetings not to the locals and their concerns but to the action taking place in the campaign email and conference call skirmishes over the addled attention of the press that particular day. McCain, for example, gives his Albuquerque supporters a speech on Afghanistan (much to the surprise of some, who had been hoping to hear about social issues and the economy) because that very day Obama delivers his major foreign policy speech, "A New Strategy for a New World," at the same time in Washington, D.C. Obama is setting the pace elsewhere, far from New Mexico. The McCain Campaign is as usual playing catch-up in Albuquerque, for Obama has been warning about the need to win the war in Afghanistan at least as far back as his Pennsylvania speeches before that state's primary.

Beyond the illusion of locality, there's the atmosphere to these meets. Despite the crackle in the air war, the town hall meetings themselves are soporific. Sometimes we begin with the hagiography of American patriotism: the trooping of the colors, the singing of patriotic hymns, the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem. That was the drill in Portsmouth. But then quickly, and without fanfare, Mrs. Cindy McCain, as she's called, is giving a two-line introduction of her husband, and there's something about her soft voice -- I'm ready for a nap. Maybe because Cindy McCain is absent, Albuquerque isn't such a yawner. For one thing, the air war is heated, especially over what Senator Obama did or did not say about "the surge." For another, there is a plethora of security -- in addition to the usual suspects, five state troopers standing and staring, perhaps because most of New Mexico's Republican Party poobahs are seated in the small conference room. (A fillip to the unusual drama is that Governor Bill Richardson is holding an Obama fundraiser nearby at the same time.)

The absence of Mrs. Cindy McCain may be significant, for John McCain does not begin well, delivering his "Comprehensive Strategy for Victory in Afghanistan" speech haltingly. And he had spoken so beautifully just the day before at the La Raza convention in San Diego! I know the Senator is having an off day when he leans on the phrase "my friends" too often. (The McCain Campaign has tried to put their candidate on a "friends-free" diet.) From there Albuquerque descends into gaffe-querque, with poor John McCain stumbling through a series of verbal missteps.

Picked up ad nauseam by the national media is John McCain's calling the Czech Republic "Czechoslovakia" for the second time in two days. In answer to a question about buying gas, the Senator typically ranges far afield and wanders (no surprise) into one of his favorite topics, Iran. "As you also know, in recent days they [the Iranians] have tested missiles which could probably, in some ways, deliver a nuclear weapon, so it's very serious, a very serious situation. Now I believe that we are seeing a positive response from our European friends. I suggested a long time ago a League of Democracies, and it's very clear that Russia and China, especially Russia, will veto significant measures which will impact the behavior of the Iranians. Now I regret that. And I regret some of the recent behavior that Russia has exhibited, and I will be glad to talk about that later on, including the reduction of oil supplies to Czechoslovakia after they [the Czechs] agreed with us on missile defense system, etc."

It's too bad John McCain doesn't confine himself to a "talk about that later on." And what's up with the missiles that could probably, in some ways, deliver a nuclear weapon? Shouldn't Senator John McCain be able to speak more to the point than "in some ways?" He has a problem with vagueness all morning long, but it is this first question, the one on buying gas, that is most illustrative. A gentleman suggests that, as a way to help with the gas price crisis, "we first list the people who are selling us gas and doing us harm," like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Then, according to this man, we should have "a good list and a bad list" and buy only from the good.

In reply John McCain says, "I think that you are right. I think that the American people are beginning to understand more clearly that this huge transfer of $700 billion a year of your money is one of the greatest transfers of wealth in history. And it is a national security issue, my friends. It is an environmental issue, clearly an economic issue. But we can't afford this as far as our national security is concerned -- that money goes -- you mentioned a couple of them, Venezuela, ah, some other countries that -- that are clearly not our friends, and there is compelling evidence that some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations. So it is a national security issue. And I would be glad to identify them, although the American people, whom we tend sometimes to underestimate, have figured a lot of this out."

Who are the "we" who "tend sometimes to underestimate?" Aren't all of us in the room in Albuquerque Americans? Besides the condescension in we v. the people, what's clear is not that "some other countries" are our enemies but that John McCain cannot think of them. This is the third thing that is wrong with the town hall meetings: John McCain is no longer able to muster the facts necessary for spirited discourse. He is not the master of policy detail that is required now, in 2008, to make a credible run for the presidency. Ironically, we have George Bush to thank for raising the bar. The American people are no longer willing -- at least, I believe this to be so -- to proffer their trust to a candidate merely because of his good humor and personality. From what I've seen of John McCain in the summer's town hall meetings, he relies entirely too much on jokes and bonhomie to slide past the specifics he may not be able to recall quite in the moment.

The fourth bit of fakery in the town hall meetings is the lack of purported back-and-forth. At almost every event, Senator McCain encourages questioners to ask a follow-up, to get deep into the subject with him. But in fact McCain seldom zeroes in on the issue raised; instead he steers away to his talking points, a typical politician, moving the "conversation" in a direction that interests him, not the questioner. In Albuquerque, when he gets a question about the future of Los Alamos and the other national labs in New Mexico, for example, John McCain talks about an event in Silicon Valley, California, he recently attended where he met two guys who have built a $100,000 electric car. (This must be some car, because Bill Clinton used to talk about it all the time, too.) Then he salutes the fact that "the government invented the internet," before saluting "the large numbers of men and women that are based here in the state of New Mexico who are charged with defending the nation." Finally, in answer to the question about the labs, he brings on Congressman Pearce (behind in the polls in a fierce re-election fight) for a brief word. And once again, in this peculiarly gaffe-laden event, McCain adds a stunner. "The first telephones cost a thousand dollars and they were about that big! We all remember that!" We do??? I'm roughly the age of the average McCain supporter here, and I don't recall any such thing.

Sometimes political town hall meetings appear staged (and this happens at Obama events, as well) when a supporter feeds the candidate a question that the supporter knows will either flatter the candidate or play to his strong points. In Albuquerque, John McCain gets a question from a handsome young Hispanic guy wearing a white cowboy hat. "How are you going to secure the prosperity for the economic backbone of this country, the small businesses, the middle class businesses, the engine of the American economy?" The very wording of the question should be a clue to everybody. I, for one, already know this man, for I've interviewed him earlier. He is Aaron Henry Diaz, and he's the president of the Young Republicans of Dona Ana County. "John McCain is definitely an amigo," he has told me. It is unclear whether John McCain recognizes Aaron Henry when he says, "You epitomize to me what America is all about." McCain savors the moment and gets into trouble, again. "I want to tell you [to Aaron Henry] without getting emotional about it when I think about America I'll think about you and your wonderful partner next to you, and--" Titters. McCain realizes he has made a mistake. "And--a friend! Excuse me. Your friend next to you." Oops. Big oops. Because the young woman sitting next to Aaron Henry is also Hispanic, poor John McCain has drawn a certain conclusion. (She is, in fact, an aide to Congressman Pearce.) "I look at you both, and I see the face of America. That's why these town hall meetings are so important."

If the face of America is the John McCain town hall meeting, we're in trouble, because the McCain town hall meetings are old and white. There are always a few African-Americans (maybe three in Portsmouth and three in Albuquerque). There is a smattering of Hispanics in Albuquerque -- although nothing near a half-audience that would be roughly representational of New Mexico. There are always a number of Veterans -- the most intriguing in Albuquerque being a Hungarian army man who emigrated here in 1946 and looks way too young to have fought in World War Two. When I compliment him, he says, "I used to spend my summers in Transylvania." So even the John McCain town hall meetings along the trail have their moments.

But mostly the town hall summer makes me sad. It is an opportunity lost. Barack Obama had nothing to fear from John McCain in appearing with him at these events, even though he would've been playing "cool" to McCain's "warm." Of course, most likely the Obama Campaign has known this all along and has turned down the repeated McCain invitation not out of fear but out of disdain, not wanting to give these events the imprimatur of credibility. Nevertheless, a summer of joint appearances would have been a good thing, a good thing for us, the American people, because the events would have brought McCain supporters and Obama supporters together in the same room. Isn't that what the Obama Campaign is supposed to be about? And I get the sense that here in New Mexico, Democrats and Republicans live in two separate worlds.

Apropos of nothing much but to shake the mood, an FYI to all candidates who inveigh against drug trafficking: For those of us Southerners of a certain age, the song "Taking Care of Business" is iconic Elvis. It was the code phrase between the King and his posse--time to go out and buy some.