McCain wants joint town halls, Obama receptive to idea

In a letter, McCain asks Obama to agree to 10 appearances together, at least one a week until the Democratic convention.

Published June 4, 2008 5:48PM (EDT)

On the day Barack Obama was basking in the afterglow of becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee, John McCain sought to begin the general election campaign in earnest with a letter he wrote to Obama suggesting that the two meet for at least 10 joint town halls between next week and the Democratic convention.

In the letter, McCain wrote:

In 1963, Senator Barry Goldwater and President John F. Kennedy agreed to make presidential campaign history by flying together from town to town and debating each other face-to-face on the same stage. In Goldwater's words, those debates "would have done the country a lot of good." Unfortunately, with President Kennedy's untimely death, Americans lost the rare opportunity of witnessing candidates for the highest office in the land discuss civilly and extensively the great issues at stake in the election... It is in the spirit of President Kennedy's and Senator Goldwater's agreement, in the spirit of the politics of change, and to do our country good, that I invite you to join me in participating in town hall meetings across the country to discuss the most important issues facing Americans. I also suggest we fly together to the first town hall meeting as a symbolically important act embracing the politics of civility.

I propose these town hall meetings be as free from the regimented trappings, rules and spectacle of formal debates as possible, and that we pledge to the American people we will not allow the idea to die on the negotiation table as our campaigns work out the details. I suggest we agree to participate in at least ten town halls once a week... These town halls should be attended by an audience of between two to four hundred selected by an independent polling agency, could be sixty to ninety minutes in length, have very limited moderation by an independent local moderator, take blind questions from the audience selected by the moderator and allow for equally proportional time for answers by each of us. All of these are suggestions that can be finalized by our campaigns ...

To show our good faith, we should both commit to the first town hall I have suggested.

The Obama camp seems open to the idea. In a statement, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe responded:

As Barack Obama has said before, the idea of joint town halls is appealing and one that would allow a great conversation to take place about the need to change the direction of this country. We would recommend a format that is less structured and lengthier than the McCain campaign suggests, one that more closely resembles the historic debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. But, having just secured our party’s nomination, this is one of the many items we will be addressing in the coming days and look forward to discussing it with the McCain campaign.

There's an interesting element to the response. The proposed difference in format is significant, of course, but the symbolism is worth noting as well -- obviously, the Obama camp would like to position its candidate as Lincoln to McCain's Douglas. (And though it's interesting that McCain would cede the JFK role to Obama, the wording of his letter had some interesting symbolism in it as well, as Goldwater is a hero of the conservative movement, which still distrusts McCain.)

As for the proposal itself, it's not hard to see a more cynical explanation for the idea than McCain gave. As my friend Steve Benen observed, "all things being equal, Obama might have more to lose. There's a reason the McCain campaign is pushing the idea, and it’s not their love of spirited discourse."

I think that's probably right. A format like this would showcase McCain at his best, while he's at a significant disadvantage when it comes to his ability to give a prepared speech; his address last night showed that, and not for the first time. And while Obama held his own at the Democratic debates, his skill there just doesn't approach his talent with a speech.

Moreover, asking for more debates is a standard tactic of an underdog, the hope being that the opponent will falter; the favorite typically shies away from such confrontation for the same reason. The McCain camp is likely hoping it'll get such an advantage from these town halls.

Three presidential debates have already been scheduled, as has one vice-presidential debate; the first of the presidential debates is slated for Sept. 26.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.