Debating debates

The McCain and Obama camps are now sniping at each other over John McCain's proposal to hold 10 joint town halls.

Published June 13, 2008 5:10PM (EDT)

Not long ago, the political world had a little dream: John McCain and Barack Obama would come together and hold a series of joint town hall events. They would eschew partisan sniping in arranging these events, they would forgo moderators from the media who would turn them into just another campaign spectacle, they would do this for the good of the country and make campaigns about issues that actually matter again.

It was a nice dream while it lasted.

All of this was sparked by a proposal McCain made not long after Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee. McCain wanted to hold 10 town halls with Obama; the first one was to have been held Thursday night. The Obama campaign initially seemed interested in the proposal, and it even appeared that the two camps would be able to come together and make something approaching McCain's proposal happen. But, as of Friday, the once-cordial relations the campaigns had been maintaining while discussing the issue seem to be falling apart.

Thursday night, McCain appeared alone at what he'd wanted to be the first in the series. Then, on Friday, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis released a letter he'd written to his counterpart in the Obama camp. In the letter, Davis wrote:

Just to reiterate, we have proposed at least ten joint town hall meetings once a week until the week before the Democratic Convention begins. As we understand your counter-proposal, you have proposed only one town hall meeting before the Democratic Convention.

In keeping with our original proposal, we are planning a joint town hall meeting in Minnesota next Thursday evening (June 19, 2008). We will hold time on our schedule for joint town halls every Thursday night until the Democratic convention. I hope Senator Obama would reconsider his position and agree to join Senator McCain as early as next week ...

At this moment, we fear that our negotiations over joint town hall meetings are turning into a debate about process. That is exactly what we have always hoped to avoid, and why we proposed a town hall format that would render many of these process issues moot. As Senator Obama has said, he is prepared to meet "anywhere, anytime" for a town hall.

The McCain camp has also accepted invitations from the Ronald Reagan and Lyndon B. Johnson presidential libraries to hold one joint town hall at each library.

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, responded with a statement of his own, and he was not so diplomatic. In his, Plouffe said:

Barack Obama offered to meet John McCain at five joint appearances between now and Election Day -- the three traditional debates plus a joint town hall on the economy in July and an in-depth debate on foreign policy in August. That package of five engagements would have been the most of any Presidential campaign in the modern era -- offering a broad range of formats -- and representing a historic commitment to openness and transparency.

It's disappointing that Senator McCain and his campaign decided to decline this proposal. Apparently they would rather contrive a political issue than foster a genuine discussion about the future of our country.

It appears that the Obama camp should bear the brunt of responsibility for the failure to come to an agreement, especially as its counterproposal is halfhearted at best. Mark Salter, a senior advisor to McCain, had previously said that he thought the Obama camp would be interested in the McCain proposal. In an e-mail to Salon on Friday, though, he called the Obama counterproposal "a joke" and said, "They never had any intention of doing this." The Obama camp waited until early this week to formally respond, Salter said, and then offered events that seem not in keeping with the spirit of the original idea. According to Salter, the town hall event the Obama camp proposed would be restricted to discussion of the economy, and would be held on July 4, and the "in-depth debate on foreign policy" to which Plouffe referred would have been composed of dueling speeches.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.