For months, the 2008 presidential election has been hyped, by media and political pundits, to be unlike any this nation has ever seen. And to be sure, with the first African-American nominee and the first woman ever on the GOP ticket, it certainly is historic. Also, given the level of interest among young people and first-time voters, it's understandable that the September 26 presidential debate between Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and John McCain (R-AZ) was an event that many Americans were eager to watch.
And people did tune in. According to Nielsen, the debate attracted 52.4 million viewers across 11 networks, though that figure is 16% smaller than the 62.5 million who watched President Bush and John Kerry in 2004.
Given the promises of change from both candidates and the expectations that this is a “different” kind of election, it was rather disappointing to hear the same, downright predictable messages. In fact, before the debate I had made the joke that I had developed a debate drinking game: every time a candidate uttered the words “maverick,” “Vietnam,” “hope,” or “change,” I'd take a drink. I amended those rules within the debate's first five minutes to include the words “fundamental” and “Main Street.” Let's just say that it was fortunate I was only drinking Diet Coke. The extent to which these phrases were repeated over the course of the de-bate bordered on Saturday Night Live-style comedy.
What was most alarming about both candidates' discourse during the debate was that it was, to borrow Sen. Joe Biden's (D-DE) rhetoric from the Democratic National Convention, “more of the same.” Though the debate itself was threatened by the ongoing financial crisis and impending bailout, neither Obama nor McCain managed to answer moderator Jim Lehrer's repeated questions about how the crisis, which has now overshadowed debates over healthcare or even the war in Iraq as the top consideration for voters, would affect their existing plans and budgets for their administration.
Certainly I'm not politically naïve. I understand that neither candidate wants to say too much about his plans, as it is a situation that changes from day to day. But for both candidates to blatantly sidestep the question and focus instead on repeating the same messages seems to be misguided at best.
On September 30, the day after the House rejected the bailout deal and the Dow Jones saw its biggest single-day decline ever, both candidates ran ads during NBC's Today that quite frankly seemed oblivious to the economic crisis facing the nation. Obama's spots touted the need for healthcare reform, while McCain's ads derided his opponent's lack of experience. These are no longer the messages Americans want, or need, to hear. Even the ads released since then still seem to miss the boat a bit. Whether Democrat, Republican, or Independent, I think all can agree that the financial crisis will affect the presidency of whoever is elected on November 4. The candidates would benefit from remembering that it should affect their messaging as well.