Obama's performance in Wednesday's presidential debate wasn't up to his usual standard, but the discussion on abortion near the end of the time period provided an example of the difference in the way he and McCain answer questions--and why Obama keeps winning these debates by wide margins.
Here's what McCain had to say:
Let me talk to you about an important aspect of this issue. We have to change the culture of America. Those of us who are proudly pro-life understand that. And it's got to be courage and compassion that we show to a young woman who's facing this terribly difficult decision.
Sen. Obama, as a member of the Illinois State Senate, voted in the Judiciary Committee against a law that would provide immediate medical attention to a child born of a failed abortion. He voted against that.
And then, on the floor of the State Senate, as he did 130 times as a state senator, he voted present.
Then there was another bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the state of Illinois not that long ago, where he voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion, one of the late-term abortion, a really -- one of the bad procedures, a terrible. And then, on the floor of the Illinois State Senate, he voted present.
I don't know how you vote "present" on some of that. I don't know how you align yourself with the extreme aspect of the pro-abortion movement in America. And that's his record, and that's a matter of his record.
And he'll say it has something to do with Roe v. Wade, about the Illinois State Senate. It was clear-cut votes that Sen. Obama voted, I think, in direct contradiction to the feelings and views of mainstream America.
McCain's answer is aimed entirely at pro-life voters. These are voters that he already has in his corner. Now, contrast his answer with Obama's. After explaining his vote on partial-birth abortion -- he would have voted for banning it, he said, if the bill had contained an exception for the health and life of the mother -- Obama said:
The last point I want to make on the issue of abortion. This is an issue that -- look, it divides us. And in some ways, it may be difficult to -- to reconcile the two views.
But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, "We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby."
Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that's where we can find some common ground, because nobody's pro-abortion. I think it's always a tragic situation.
Obama's response, in contrast to McCain's, is directed toward independents. They're in the middle. His answer is phrased in terms that describe the center: "common ground" ... "come together" ... "providing options."
Do you remember, in the first debate, when McCain accused Obama of not knowing the difference between strategy and tactics? But it's McCain who doesn't seem to have to have the big-picture strategic understanding of debates. He answers questions by explaining his beliefs. He appeals to the same people, over and over. He operates by the old Rovian view that you win elections by motivating your base and getting them to the polls. (Karl told me once, "There are no undecided voters. There are only uncommitted voters.") Obama has an entirely different view. He believes that uncommitted voters can be won over by showing that he understands their dilemma: that they don't see issues as black and white, and that he, like they, sees the grays. Obama exploits every opportunity to appeal to independents. Not McCain. Here was his response to Obama:
McCain: Just again, the example of the eloquence of Sen. Obama. He's health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, "health."
I'm sure that went over well with women: worrying about the health of the mother is the extreme position.
No sign of a strategic vision. McCain's new campaign team has been guilty of malpractice, in my opinion. But that's a post for another day.
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