As soon as it became a possibility a couple of months ago that Barack Obama and John McCain might eventually face off against each other, many political observers began looking forward to a more engaging, open, informative debate between the changemonger and the reformer maverick than we’ve come to expect from our presidential candidates in recent elections. McCain took the first step toward that reality today when he officially proposed an oft-mentioned series of town-hall-style debates with Obama starting next week (jeez, give the guy a moment to breathe, he just won last night) and continuing once a week for ten weeks. A political ploy meant to out-flank Obama on the transparency front? Obama doesn’t think so. His campaign quickly sent out a receptive response, calling “the idea of joint town halls” “appealing” “and one that would allow a great conversation to take place.” In fact, the Obama statement proposes to go one step further. Let’s make the debates “less structured and lengthier than the McCain campaign suggests,” more closely resembling “the historic debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas,” the statement spiritedly posits.
It sounds great — a return to the days of substantive, gentlemanly political debate that we imagine existed when men wore top hats and three-piece suits. And of course Obama wants to have a duel of rhetoric: As last night’s display of speech-making proved, Obama trounces McCain behind the podium. But let’s not forget McCain is a master at the art of the town hall, where his Everyman appeal and candor connect personally with voters. Are these proposed “tweaks” to McCain’s guidelines simply an extra precaution that if Obama’s oratory doesn’t hold up, his youth will? The Obama campaign is probably aware that those Lincoln-Douglas debates of political yore lasted for a ridiculous three hours each, with each candidate talking uninterrupted for up to 90 minutes at a time. Now, that would never succeed in the made-for-TV era. But a longer format of any kind (with, to be blunt, the candidates standing and roaming the stage) might expose McCain’s age far more clearly than a shorter, more sane debate ever could. Call us cynical, but is it possible that when the Obama campaign specifically suggests “less structured” and “longer,” they really mean “rhetorically demanding” and “physically exhausting”? —Dan Amira