Adherents of the notion that right-wing talk radio works because conservatives have strong and certain opinions while liberals struggle with nuance found ammunition for their argument in last night's successive discussions with the top two presidential candidates.
John McCain was quick to answer, sure of himself, funny and full of stories. Great radio. Barack Obama was thoughtful, discursive, occasionally muddled. What was that? NPR?
In my useless opinion, McCain won the political debate. Obama won the religious discussion.
For instance, on the question of evil, McCain went right to Al Qaida and then stayed there. Fair enough as far as it goes. But Obama talked about evil perpetuated by governments (Dafur), evil by individuals (street crime) and the evil within ourselves. The last part, the evil within us, warns us to be humble about judging evil in others. I passed the halfway mark in "The Dark Side" yesterday, so it was a welcome warning. It also struck me as a good answer for a Christian to give. But then Jesus never could have withstood the Republican attack machine. Questions about his birth remain unanswered, he was soft on crime, a sucker for the poor, a cut-and-run commander-in-chief, a combatant in class warfare, and he interfered with free enterprise by driving money changers out of the temple. Points to McCain.
I also liked Obama's answer about which Supreme Court justices he would not have nominated. He distinguished between Clarence Thomas, whose legal record wasn't up to snuff, and Scalia, who is brilliant but too conservative for Obama's tastes. He admitted to mixed feelings about Roberts -- a distinguished and fair-minded scholar who gives too much credence to the Bush administration's usurpation of the Constitution.
McCain took the classic conservative position: He wouldn't have nominated anyone on the whole liberal side of the court: Ginsburg, Breyer, Souter, Stevens. Of course, he didn't say it was because he didn't like their politics. Instead, he accused them of "judicial activism," which is conservative code for he didn't like their politics.
After all, is it judicial activism to line up in defense of habeas corpus, the most venerated right in Western law? Even in the infamous Kelo decision, the liberal majority essentially held that it was up to the political process, not unelected judges, to decide what amounts to a taking of private property in the public interest. It was the opposite of activism, but accuracy in such matters hardly counts.
In a question not posed to Obama, McCain also said that the California Supreme Court erred when it overturned the state's ban on gay marriage. Interesting how he would have known that. From what I have read, the court decided the case pretty narrowly based on its reading of the California Constitution. So unless McCain has been reading the California Constitution, which seems unlikely, I don't know how he can judge the merits of the case. I think he meant that he didn't like the political implications of the ruling, not the legal reasoning. Too bad he didn't distinguish between the two. But the audience seemed to love it.
Finally, Fox News analysts labeled Obama's response to a question about abortion as the one major gaffe of the night. In response to a question about when a baby acquires human rights, Obama answered that the question was above his pay grade. McCain instantly awarded rights at conception.
I thought Obama's response was fine and, in effect, made the case for the conservative pro-choice argument. He meant, I believe, that such questions involve moral, ethical and religious judgments that are beyond the competence of mere politicians, and that's why it's better to leave such decisions in the hands of women, their families, their ministers and their doctors. Probably not the answer the crowd wanted to hear, but probably the best answer he could give.
Did McCain win? I think so. But it was an interesting reminder of why Obama is such an unusual and fascinating candidate.
UPDATE: The Hammond Report couldn't be happier.
UPDATE 2: Was anyone else struck by McCain's critique of Bush for failing to ask for sacrifice after Sept. 11, followed by his own failure to ask for any sacrifice at all? McCain wants to wage two wars and pose at least credible threats against Iran and Russia, while facing massive deficits and without asking for a tax increase on anybody. Who pays the bills? As usual, the grandkids.
UPDATE 3: I don't want to be too easy on Obama. I thought he had the worst answer of the night when he was asked whether churches running federally funded faith-based initiatives should be allowed to discriminate in hiring against people who are not of their faith. McCain just charged right past the problem. Obama is a good enough lawyer to know that this poses a terrible problem. Are you going to tell Americans that they can't be hired for jobs paid for with their own tax dollars unless they adhere to a certain religion?
Maybe Obama has it worked out in his head how this would work. If he does, I couldn't figure it out based on his answer. He seemed to be dodging.