If you're like me (that is, a huge dork) you probably watched Rick Warren's presidential forum at his Saddleback Church last night. If you're not like me (that is, normal, with a social life) you were probably doing something productive. Barack Obama's been vacationing in the exotic, foreign, barely-on-this-planet island of "Hawaii" for the past week, so this was a nice way of getting an hour of free press coming off his lull. It was also a chance to show a couple thousand Orange County evangelicals that he was a different kind of Democrat when it came to issues of faith and morality. For McCain, it was a chance to appeal to that audience of thousands of Orange County evangelicals, people who are the true bedrock of the Republican Party and who have been somewhat reluctant to embrace him.
Before I go any further, let me link to this Salon piece by Mike Madden. I'm giving you that story because my "analysis" is pretty much identical to Madden's, and I don't want anyone thinking I ripped off his perspective. Joan Walsh also said some of the things I will.
That out of the way, I thought Obama handled himself well. He was obviously comfortable speaking about religious and moral issues, and he showed familiarity with the Bible very early in his interview by referencing Matthew. (Warren seemed to appreciate it) He spoke coherently about the role of religion in his life and the importance of a moral aspect to all of his decisions.
And he avoided pandering, volunteering a pro-choice position to the fervently pro-life crowd. Obama expressed opposition to gay marriage, which is an issue where he and I differ, but he did offer an articulate defense for the idea of gay partnerships and offering basic spousal benefits to those partnerships. (“For gay partners to visit each other in the hospital, I don’t think limits my core beliefs about what marriage is.")
What was truly fascinating, however, was the difference in Obama's approach to the forum and McCain's. Obama came in for a...well, for a forum, a conversation about difficult issues. He frequently took a few seconds to answer Warren's questions and his responses tended to snake through the difficult issues Warren raised. Obama stretched out and explored the nuance. He came off like a professor, albeit that cool professor who'd spend a couple hours in his office with a handful of students talking about that tricky footnote on page 63 of the textbook.
McCain, on the other hand, came in impeccably prepared for a debate. He didn't attack Obama, because he's not an idiot, but aside from that his performance was exactly what you could expect to see from him in the upcoming debates. In fact, if he performs in those like he did Saturday night his staffers will be happy campers.
He pivoted effortlessly to areas of strength, "his" issues. His very first response brought the conversation to the supposed success of the surge in Iraq. National security came up in almost every response. McCain frequently answered questions with anecdotes that have become well-worn through overuse on the campaign trail, but he diffused any annoyance by using self-deprecating humor to point out the number of stories he was telling. And then he would tell another story and the audience would laugh. It was quite masterful.
McCain's responses were immediate and decisive, with none of the brief pauses Obama used. He didn't explore the same depths Obama did, but he was more quote-worthy and earned far more applause. (That was likely a simple matter of McCain sharing a political philosophy with those in attendance)
Take the two candidates' responses when Warren asked which Supreme Court justice they wouldn't have nominated. Obama unhesitatingly named Clarence Thomas. But when he talked about Antonin Scalia, Bane of The Left, he praised the justice's "brilliant" legal mind before expressing his disagreement with Scalia's philosophy. And he went into great depth when exploring John Roberts, calling him a "compelling person" before raising concerns about his tendency to give the executive branch too much leeway. It was an interesting answer, but a long one.
McCain? He instantaneously decreed every "liberal" justice on the bench to be unworthy of their positions and moved on to espouse his standard "strict constructionist" philosophy. It was, I must admit, rather breathtaking to watch McCain dispatch four members of the United States Supreme Court with a wave of his hand. Obama criticized three justices, but only called one truly unworthy of the position.
The answer was almost assuredly crafted to resonate with those conservatives who have not embraced McCain's candidacy. If they're not impressed with an effortless dismissal of half of the United States Supreme Court, they're not likely to be swayed by anything.
It's rather crass to talk about who "won" last night, but strictly in terms of presentation, McCain had a hell of a night. Obama didn't do anything to hurt himself, but he didn't do anything to help himself with an evangelical bloc his campaign thinks is up for grabs. McCain, by contrast, might well have made dramatic strides with those same voters.