A diverse crowd, almost a microcosm of the City of Madison, showed up at the Concourse Hotel for the AARP presidential debate watching party on Wednesday night. In addition to voters old enough to belong to AARP, there were college students concerned about tuition fees and school vouchers, high school students hoping to better understand the political process, and even a couple of undecided voters. There were African-Americans that reflected both the young and old. But first and foremost, all were Americans looking for the way forward as a country.
Walking in tonight I thought of how Washington Post reporter David Broder might feel as he travels the country while trying to better understand the mood of the electorate. I too over this past year have questioned all sorts of people about the national race, and from the guy who gives our car an oil change, to the folks in the check-out lanes, it is fun to take the pulse of the average voters. Needless to say there is a lot of angst in the nation. But what about a group of Wisconsinites only weeks from the election with concerns over pensions that are collapsing in value, a health care system in need of major repair, and a state budget that is $3 billion in red ink due to the national economy? How would these voters with different life experiences speak about the possibility of our first African-American President?
Sitting at our table were two ’20-something’ college students with studies in history and law, a 53 year-old lady, along with an 80-year-old architect who retired to Wisconsin. The small sampling of voices I heard throughout the room echoed the larger themes of what we all have read or heard over the past months.
During the debate one man at our table was frustrated at the long time spent on Barack Obama somehow being associated with a terrorist, and leaned over and snapped in my ear “this is old trash”, and wanted more relevant questions and topics posed to the candidates. “I have heard all these talking points before’, he concluded.
The history major at our table felt that the previous debates were not illuminating, but more just summations of each candidate’s talking points. Asked what issues he thought were most important to this election he gave an expansive and delightful response. “What is the role of government? Is it all about protecting private property, or does it extend to the larger issues of health care and the environment?” I admit I am drawn to those types of thoughtful views, and had a great time talking with him.
The fear factor that is present in both campaign rallies and advertisements by John McCain, was also evident as one middle-aged white woman told me that the nation was not ready for an African-American president. She informed me that she liked John Kerry and voted for him in 2004, thought President Bush was not very bright, and opposed the Iraq War. But when I asked whom she was going to support in the fall election she claimed to be undecided. When I asked how she viewed the historic nature of possibly having Obama elected she agreed it would be historic, but thought “America was not ready”. I think she might have been alone in the room with her views, but sadly not alone in the nation.
There was sneering laughter at many points as John McCain either acted petulantly, or rolled his eyes in response to Obama’s responses. It was interesting to note that many seemed very aware of the importance of body language in the debate, and seemed to score that as a negative for McCain.
The biggest laugh of the night came when Barack Obama pointed out that McCain was misrepresenting his tax plan by saying, “even Fox News disputes your claims”. The crowd appreciated that remark. The second biggest laugh was just for the question of ‘why Biden or Palin would be best to serve as President?” I thought I heard a person unexpectedly swallow an ice-cube about then and cough!
My overall thoughts, as expressed to the crowd after the debate in a follow-up session, which was recorded by Wisconsin Public Radio and should air Thursday in their news segments, is printed below. (As a follow-up, WPR had my name wrong, though I was the first male voice on the news segment. http://clipcast.wpr.org:8080/ramgen/wpr/news/news081016sm.rm
Where was the meat in the debate beyond the talking points for each campaign? We entered the debate with the news that a car company would stop production in our state, news that the Dow had dropped 733 points, and that the state was $3 billion dollars in debt due to the national economy. And yet the debate was structured so that a radical from the 1960’s took away time from real issues! The political process, which allows these candidates to set up their own rules for the debates, makes sure that there are never any true debates. So no one can claim they heard anything new unless they were not listening to the stump speeches by each side over these many months.
We all need a leader for the future, but I suspect that we also just need this election to come to an end.