Obama, McCain, and Rick Warren

Otherwise detained when it was first broadcast, I only got around to watching the Saddleback Church encounter (video; transcript) last night.

Warren did a very nice job. I hope the network moderators were taking notes. No self-aggrandizement, no moronic gimmicks, no ceaseless quest for the gotcha moment. He asked good, searching questions in a spirit of urgent reflection, curiosity and goodwill. So it can be done.

I agree with the take of most commentators: Obama came across as thoughtful--but to a fault. His answers were too long and inconclusive. He came over as smart, interesting and admirable, but indecisive. McCain was just the opposite: direct, peremptory, energetic, impatient to take charge.

If this event were all I knew of the two candidates, I would prefer Obama, though with reservations. McCain crossed the line between concise and simplistic (not to say bombastic) too many times. Obama's answer to the question, "At what point does a baby have human rights?"--"That's above my pay grade"--was an evasion. (What would I have said, I wondered? Words to the same effect. Luckily I'm not running for president.) Then it got worse, as he talked about "theological perspective", "scientific perspective" and (eek) "specificity". Oh dear. McCain's immediate answer, "At the moment of conception," was as crisp and clear as you could wish. Problem is, that answer has implications which I am certain that McCain, consistent though his record may be on abortion, is not willing to confront. If it's a choice between (a) handwringing over specificity and (b) dogmatic certainty on an issue that (in my view) does not support it, I'll reluctantly take (a).

As for the politics, surely McCain won. Much to my surprise, given some of his recent outings, he seemed much more presidential. So I agree with David Gergen:

Heading into the candidates' appearances on Saturday night at Saddleback Church, the conventional wisdom in politics was Barack Obama should have a clear upper hand in any joint appearance with John McCain -- one the young, eloquent, cool, charismatic dude who can charm birds from the trees, the other the meandering, sometimes bumbling, old fellow who can barely distinguish Sunnis from Shiias.

Well, kiss that myth goodbye.

McCain came roaring out of the gate from the first question and was a commanding figure throughout the night as he spoke directly and often movingly about his past and the country's future. By contrast, Obama was often searching for words and while far more thoughtful, was also less emotionally connective with his audience.

Also see this piece by Dick Polman at the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The same stylistic gap - cerebral versus visceral - was evident at several other points in the forum, again to Obama's potential disadvantage. Such as the exchanges about the nature of evil.

Warren asked Obama: "Does evil exist, and if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, or do we defeat it?"

Obama's response: "Evil does exist. I mean, we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil in parents have viciously abused their children and I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, you know, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world...Now, the one thing that I think is very important for us is to have humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, but, you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil...And I think one thing that's very important is having some humility in recognizing that, you know, just because we think our intentions are good doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good..."

One hour later, Warren asked McCain the same question about evil and what we should do about it. McCain's response began this way:

"Defeat it."

Jim Fallows, though, makes a very good point. This was a pair of interviews, not a debate. Who knows where the discussion of human rights and abortion would have gone if the candidates had been able to challenge each other--if Obama had been able to test McCain on the implications of his certainties, and say, "Is it really so simple?". Perhaps that would have made things even worse for Obama, or perhaps not. We shall see. The approaching presidential debates will be even more important that I had supposed. Shame they will be back in the hands of the TV professionals.

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