Gordon Campbell previews the Obama/McCain debate

Gordon Campbell previews the Obama/McCain debate

At least the ‘Town Hall’ format for today’s debate between John McCain and Barack Obama should play to some of McCain’s folksy strengths – which would be the first good news in a fortnight of terrible setbacks for the Arizona senator, many of them self-inflicted. The financial meltdown has sent the opinion polls moving in Obama’s favour, both nationally and in the swing states. So far, the personal smears about Obama consorting with terrorists have backfired on McCain, and the Sarah Palin candidacy is an accelerating disaster.

Like everything else McCain touches these days, the format for today’s debate could be a two edged sword. Yes, the two candidates will be up on stage with 80 supposedly uncommitted voters, interacting with them folksily, and answering their pre-vetted questions. While McCain usually does well in such situations, the format will expose a few of his limitations. Age, and temperament for starters.

One thing the financial meltdown has done, both in the US and in New Zealand, is move the election campaign away from the purely’presidential style’ issue of likeability ( a luxury possible only during stable economic conditions) into more urgent ones of competence. Like John Key, McCain will be under pressure today to show he can deliver solutions on economic management and policy direction, not just perky soundbites.
So far, McCain has been unable to shift the debate away from the tanking economy. It is hard to run as a Washington outsider when you represent the party that has been running Washington for the past eight years. Palin’s attacks on Obama as someone not like us ( dog whistle : he’s black) who ‘pals around’ with terrorists ( such as former Weather Underground activist Bill Ayers ) looked like a desperate attempt to get the economy off the front page. The effort seems to have backfired. Partly because if anyone has been keeping dubious company, it has been Palin and McCain.

Palin for instance, supports – and her husband belongs to – an Alaskan separatist movement that has, on occasions, called for armed struggle against the United States. In 2004, Palin also accepted a blessing against witchcraft in her Wasilla, Alaska church by a Kenyan preacher who, later in the same sermon, called on Christians to regain the US economic system from “ the Israelites” who currently run it, using these words :

The second area whereby God wants us, wants to penetrate in our society, is in the economic area. The Bible says that the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous. It’s high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity running the economics of our nations. That’s what we are waiting for. That’s part and parcel of transformation. If you look at the — you know — if you look at the Israelites, that’s how they work. And that’s how they are, even today.

Elderly Jewish voters in the swing state of Florida – already wary of Palin’s Christian fundamentalism – are unlikely to be impressed.

It gets even worse for McCain . As this column from the Chicago Tribune reveals, McCain has been a friend for years of G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate felon and nutcase – who plotted to kidnap and kill government critics and journalists during the 1970s, and who publicly spoken on how best to shoot and kill federal agents ( go for the head shot, or shoot them in the groin ) and who has been a consistent donor, fundraiser and talkshow host for McCain as recently as last November. Obama was eight when Ayers committed his crimes, and has never publicly endorsed Ayers for whgat he did. By contrast, the Chicago Tribune reports :

In 1998, Liddy’s home was the site of a McCain fundraiser. Over the years, he has made at least four contributions totaling $5,000 to the senator’s campaigns — including $1,000 this year. Last November, McCain went on his radio show. Liddy greeted him as “an old friend,” and McCain sounded like one. “I’m proud of you, I’m proud of your family,” he gushed. “It’s always a pleasure for me to come on your program, Gordon, and congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great.”

To cap it off, McCain was also one of the “Keating Five “ – a group of senators chastised by a congressional ethics committee for intervening during the late 1980s to prevent regulators from pursuing the lobbyist and financier Charles Keating. Eventually, Keating was convicted in the wake of a loans scheme collapse that saw 21,000 elderly investors lose their life savings. Of the five, McCain was the closest personally and in economic dealings ( via his wife) to Keating. The self declared ‘maverick” accepted free travel and hospitality from the lobbyist.
In other words, McCain would be well advised to stick to the high road of policy. Palin, after her disastrous encounters with Katie Couric of CBNS News, has been penned off into the media equivalent of the Witness Protection Programme. Even so, her smear attacks this week on Obama sit very oddly with her image of alleged likeability. As one Obama organizer had said, you don’t send in the fluffy bunny to toss the firebombs.

Back in NZ: National’s Tax Policy

Later today, National’s tax policy will be revealed by New Zealand’s own Mr Likeability. For now, the media continue to depict that policy as National’s $50 a week tax cuts package

in headlines and reports. Only in footnotes are readers advised that this $50 figure includes Labour’s October 1 tax package. Quite an innovation, to help National to piggy back in this fashion – and claim existing government policy as part of its own, in order to beef up the attractiveness of the package. I look forward to headlines saying that National is buying Tranz Rail and cutting back on its Kiwisaver scheme.