WASHINGTON — It is now clear why Barack Obama has refused John McCain’s offer of joint town hall appearances during the fall campaign. McCain is obviously better at them.
Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency — two hours on Saturday night evenly divided between the relaxed, tieless candidates — was expected to be a sideshow. McCain and Obama would make their specialized appeals to evangelicals as if they were an interest group such as organized labor or the National Rifle Association. Evangelicals would demonstrate, in turn, that they are not rubes and know-nothings. And Americans would turn en masse to watch the Olympics.
What took place instead under Warren’s precise and revealing questioning was the most important event so far of the 2008 campaign — a performance every voter should seek out on the Internet and watch.
First, the forum previewed the stylistic battle lines of the contest ahead, and it should give Democrats pause. Obama was fluent, cool and cerebral — the qualities that made Adlai Stevenson interesting but did not make him president. Obama took care to point out that he had once been a professor at the University of Chicago, but that bit of biography was unnecessary. His whole manner smacks of chalkboards and campus ivy. Issues from stem cell research to the nature of evil are weighed, analyzed and explained instead of confronted.
This approach has a genuine appeal to some voters, especially of a more liberal bent, who believe there is a nuance shortage in American life. But on Saturday night it did not compare well with McCain, who was decisive, passionate and surprisingly personal. The candidate who once seemed incapable of the confessional style of politics talked at length of Vietnam experiences and his adopted daughter from Bangladesh. Asked by Warren about his greatest moral failure, McCain’s response — "the failure of my first marriage" — had an abrupt and disarming authenticity. The account of his hardest decision — refusing release from captivity ahead of others who had been imprisoned longer — remains shocking in its valor. And McCain’s habit of understatement — he described the excruciating rope torture he experienced in Vietnam as "very uncomfortable" — makes his stories even more effective.
Second, the Warren forum demonstrated how difficult it will be for Obama to appeal to religious and conservative voters as the campaign proceeds. His outreach to evangelical voters is obviously sincere, but he doesn’t actually agree with them on much.