How McCain Won Saddleback: In an unusual setting, his experience overwhelmed Obama.
August 17, 2008, 8:52 pm
Filed under: Obama doesn't quite get it, Obama lied | Tags: , , ,

By Byron York, NRO

Lake Forest, Calif. — It’s fair to say that in the hours before John McCain appeared with Barack Obama at the “Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency,” here at Pastor Rick Warren’s famed southern California mega-church, there were at least a few McCain insiders who were a bit nervous about their candidate’s prospects. Obama can be remarkably polished in this sort of situation. Unlike other Democrats, he’s not afraid to hang out with evangelicals. McCain, on the other hand, can at times be cranky and take pleasure in irritating his base. Could he come out ahead in this one?

Team McCain needn’t have worried. This was not your usual political TV show. Warren — Pastor Rick, around here — asked big questions, about big subjects; he wasn’t concerned about what appeared on the front page of that morning’s Washington Post. And his simple, direct, big questions brought out something we don’t usually see in a presidential face-off; in this forum, as opposed to a read-the-prompter speech, or even a debate focused on the issues of the moment, the candidates were forced to call on everything they had — the things they have done and learned throughout their lives. And the fact is, John McCain has lived a much bigger life than Barack Obama. That’s not a slam at Obama; McCain has lived a much bigger life than most people. But it still made Obama look small in comparison. McCain was the clear winner of the night.

The idea was for Warren to question Obama for an hour — they tossed a coin to see who would go first — and then ask the same questions of McCain, who was not allowed to hear what Obama had answered before him. Not a few people in the press thought it was a bad idea. Asking each man the same questions meant Warren couldn’t tailor his queries to each man; sure, he could ask Obama about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but what sense would it make to ask McCain, too? It seemed like a recipe for nothing much at all.

But Pastor Rick hasn’t built a huge church and sold more than 25 million copies of The Purpose-Driven Life for nothing. By the time Warren finished questioning Obama, people were eager to hear how McCain would handle the same subjects. In a debate, candidates are often asked the same question, but the second guy has always heard what the first guy said and tailors his answer accordingly. At Saddleback, there was something much different — and more revealing — going on.

The contrast was striking throughout each man’s one-hour time on stage. When Warren asked Obama, “What’s the most gut-wrenching decision you’ve ever had to make?” Obama answered that opposing the war in Iraq was “as tough a decision that I’ve had to make, not only because there were political consequences but also because Saddam Hussein was a bad person and there was no doubt he meant America ill.” But Obama was a state senator in Illinois when Congress authorized the president to use force in Iraq. He didn’t have to make a decision on the war. That fact was a recurring issue in the Democratic primaries, when candidates Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd, and John Edwards argued that they, as senators, had to make a choice Obama didn’t have to make. And now he says it’s his toughest call.

When McCain got the question, he was able to tell an old story with a sense of gravity and poignancy that he seldom shows in public. He described his time as a prisoner of war, when he was offered a chance for early release because his father was a top naval officer. “I was in rather bad physical shape,” McCain told Warren, but “we had a code of conduct that said you only leave by order of capture.” So McCain refused to go. He made the telling even more forceful when he added that, “in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m very happy I didn’t know the war was going to last for another three years or so.” In one moment, he showed a sense of pride and a hint of regret, too; he came across as a man who did the right thing but not without the temptation to take an easy out. In any event, the message was very clear: John McCain has had to make bigger, more momentous decisions in his life than has Barack Obama.

McCain bested Obama again when Warren asked for an example of a time in which he “went against party loyalty and maybe even against your own best interest for the good of America.”

“Well, I’ll give you an example that in fact I worked with John McCain on,” Obama said, “and that was the issue of campaign ethics reform and finance reform.” But it turned out that was an issue on which Obama had briefly allied with McCain and then jumped back to the Democratic mother ship, causing McCain to write Obama an angry note about the abandonment of what had been a principled position. As far as bucking your party goes, it wasn’t very big stuff.

When McCain got the question, everyone in the room thought he would bring up campaign-finance reform, the issue on which he has alienated the Republican base for years. But he didn’t. “Climate change, out-of-control spending, torture,” he said. “The list goes on.” McCain’s prime example, though, was his story of opposing Ronald Reagan’s decision to send a contingent of Marines to Lebanon as a peacekeeping force. “My knowledge and my background told me that a few hundred Marines in a situation like that could not successfully carry out any kind of peacekeeping mission, and I thought they were going into harm’s way,” McCain said. But he deeply admired Reagan, and wanted to be loyal to the party; it was a difficult decision.

McCain answered the whole question without touching on campaign finance; he had so much more life experience to draw on that he could swamp Obama without using everything he had.

And on it went. On questions like the nature of evil and causes worth dying for, McCain’s depth stood out. And that was true even when he admitted wrongdoing. Early on in the questioning, Warren asked each man, “What…would be the greatest moral failure in your life, and what would be the greatest moral failure of America?” Obama answered that he drank and “experimented” with drugs as a teenager, which he attributed to his own selfishness. McCain, on the other hand, said, “The failure of my first marriage. It’s my greatest moral failure.”

McCain’s actions in that matter are nothing to brag about, but what came from it onstage at Saddleback was the sense that he was willing to dig deeper and take a greater risk in his answer than had Obama. McCain knew that critics on the left, looking for a way to change the subject from the John Edwards affair, had been pointing to the end of McCain’s first marriage. But McCain took the subject straight on. “He could have avoided that altogether or come up with some other answer,” Chip Pickering, the Mississippi Republican representative, told me later in the “Messaging Room.” (There’s no “Spin Room” at Saddleback; just a “Messaging Room.”) “But he very quickly, cleanly, and clearly confessed his failure.” Still, I said to Pickering, adultery doesn’t sit well with evangelicals, and that’s what McCain was talking about, wasn’t it? “The clarity of confessing his failure — there will be respect in the evangelical community for doing so,” Pickering answered.

Finally, there was the question of abortion. In the days leading up to the forum, pro-lifers had been worried that Warren was not going to include a question on the issue, focusing instead on things like poverty, AIDS, and the “new” evangelical agenda. But Warren brought it up, simple and straight. “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?” he asked Obama.

“Well, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade,” Obama answered. “But let me just speak more generally about the issue of abortion because this is something obviously the country wrestles with. One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is there is a moral and ethical content to this issue. So I think that anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue, I think, is not paying attention. So that would be point number one.” Obama went on to say that he is pro-choice. Even for people who agreed with him, it wasn’t a terribly impressive answer.

An hour later, when Warren asked McCain the same thing, he got this: “At the moment of conception. I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate, and as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies.”

“Okay — we don’t have to go longer on that one,” Warren said, quickly moving on.

Obama had nothing to win on the question; if anything, he seemed wary of saying something that might anger his pro-choice base. But McCain had a lot at stake with this group, and his answer seemed to settle the concerns of social conservatives who have been rattled by reports that he might be considering a pro-choice running mate. While many evangelicals have softened on the issue of gay marriage, they wanted to hear a solid, clear statement from McCain on abortion. “Abortion and marriage are still pivotal issues…but I think that abortion is probably more pivotal than marriage,” Marlys Popma, the Iowa social conservative who is now McCain’s national coordinator for evangelical issues, told me after the forum. “Abortion is still very, very solid with this group, even the younger ones [who are more liberal on marriage]. Life is a real delineating factor.”

To further press the case on abortion, McCain had brought along New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith, one of the most forceful pro-life voices in Congress. After the forum, I asked Smith whether Obama had helped himself at all with pro-lifers. Just the opposite, Smith said. “I thought Sen. Obama’s statement in quoting Matthew 25, which is my favorite scripture since I was in high school — ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do likewise to me’ — when as a matter of record he voted against [a ban on partial-birth abortion ]…well, I find it discouraging and disingenuous for him to talk about the least of our brethren.”

As far as the crowd is concerned, it was clear that McCain was the favorite. That was hardly a surprise; at a small gathering I attended a few years ago, someone asked Warren how many of his parishioners voted for John Kerry. He thought for a moment and said 15 percent. So the conservative Saddleback crowd, while happy to see Obama in their midst, was not going to be on his side. What they wanted was proof that John McCain was on theirs, and that’s what they got.
Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.


11 Comments so far
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McCain’s answers were so canned he did not even wait for the end of the question.

As usual he shot from the hip.

Comment by gasdocpol

Yes, the crowd was polite to Sen. Obama and he is an impressive “looking” figure, but when the dust settled at the “Non-Showdown,” “Non-Debate,” Barrack was limping away, injured and McCain looked like John Wayne…

My eyewitness account at Saddleback Church: http://www.luxeman.wordpress.com

Comment by luxeman

Got a dirty little secret for ya—-almost everything every politician says is canned.

Comment by obamarxist


Did you know that every time the cameras were rolling, John Wayne was drunk?

Yup McCain has put together a John Wayne type schtick. It is all illusion.

He got hero status after 23 hours of combat missions and 5 years as a POW during which time He sung like a canary.

The John McCain story would work pretty good in the movies.

The substance that came out of Obama’s mouth went right over your head.

Comment by gasdocpol

Dearest Gasdocpol,

Nothing B.H.O. could say would fly over my head… there is no substance to what he says. Specifics? Nada, zip. He is the Illusionist… he paints pretty word pictures and then in a hazy dream like state, you dream up what he means in your own mind… all the while he laughs at you for falling for it…he’s got you fooled.

John Wayne is an American Icon… he’s a metaphor for what Americans (and the rest of the world (despite what you and your CNN brainwashed comrades may believe from Pravda) love about this country and our spirit. You can trash the icon all you want… his spirit will continue on.

I suppose you are among those America haters that also say George Washington was evil and Lincoln was a lousy president while looking dewy eyed to the good old days of corrupt Lyndon Johnson or worthless Jimmy Carter.

Try to tear down our institutions and icons all you and your barbarian class like, you will never succeed.

As for tearing down Sen McCain’s military experience, I would hope that yours was vastly more impressive since you are casting the stones.

Funny I don’t remember hearing any of the men he served with say he was a traitor or that he was dishonorable in any way. To the contrary they are on record as saying he acted in a manner consistent with the military code of conduct.

How long would it have taken you to squeal I wonder? 10 minutes without a highball or 15 minutes without a latte perhaps?

Anyone who completes air combat training and flies even one mission and survives the hell he did is a hero to me. He could easily have gotten out of service entirely but chose not to.

Comment by luxeman

1. John Wayne in the movies is fiction and so is John Wayne. People know that John Wayne is an actor most people do not know that John McCain is also basically an actor.

2. McCain was intellectually lazy at the Naval Academy and intellectually lazy in understanding the issues now. His salty, bombastic blustery schtick has some people has some people fooled. Appararntly, like you, the movies is their only contact with top management and high level decision making decision making.

3. Washington and Lincoln are my heroes.
Lincoln, BTW, had 3 months of military service in the Blackhawk Wars and he was a superb wartime President.

4. I voted against Carter twice.

5. I got through my career without having to claim that I was a war hero.

6. There are 2 versions of McCain’s internment as a POW, neither of which is independantly confirmed. McCain has blocked access to North Vietnamese records. McCain’s version is well known. There is other testimony that he gave information that resulted in other US flyers shot down in exchange for accesss to prostitutes.

7. During the one and only year when mcCain ostensibly had to make something go, as commander of the R.A.G. he violated UCMJ regulations against fraternizations and adultery.

8. I do not know how long it would have taken me to squeal, but we do know that McCain did do at least that.

9. I am impressed by anyone who completes flight training and flies even one combat missions. That does not make them qualified to be President.I have two brothers who spent many more hours than McCain getting shot at in Vietnam. One was an infantry officer. The other was a sargeant. Does that qualify them to be President too?

10. After getting through USNA with a free college degree (I did not say, education )from the USNA he would not have gotten out of service. His whole raison d’etre in the navy was his bellegerance which may have given him credibility as a warrior. He needed to be a hot shot flyboy.

11. Thank you for telling me that if someone looks like John Wayne, that qualifies him to be President. I was wondering what was McCain’s appeal.

Comment by gasdocpol

In my first point.

I meant to say “John Wayne is fiction and so is John McCain”

Comment by gasdocpol

If the debate for you over who is president hinges on experience, military service, and substance, then for everything McCain lacks, Obama lacks thrice over. But McCain is no walk in the park in and of himself–my only reason for considering to vote for him is one thing only–he isn’t a Marxist, he isn’t Obama.

One of the most amusing comments Obama said during his interview with Rick was when Obama claimed Clarence Thomas was too young and inexperienced to be a Supreme Court Justice. By Obama’s own standards, Obama himelf isn’t fit for the White House.

Obama has done nothing in the Senate during his still incomplete FIRST term as a Senator. Every bill he takes credit for he either never voted on or never wrote and just stuck his name on in hindsight. One of the only things he has written (or so we are told–but it is highly likely Senator Biden wrote it and gave it to Obama as a “let’s create a fake legislative agenda for you” present) and introduced is his backwards “Global Poverty Act” that puts all his eggs in the U.N. basket while making it U.S. policy to redistribute more of America’s wealth to tyrants and dictators in third world countries. And the only thing of consequence Obama did as a state senator was to defend the right of doctors to kill newly born infants that miraculously survived abortions.

Wow, that is some record.

Comment by obamarxist

McCain experience

7. During the one and only year when mcCain ostensibly had to make something go, as commander of the R.A.G. he violated UCMJ regulations against fraternizations and adultery.

Obama DID NOT SAY that Clarence Thomas was too young and inexperienced. He said that his legal scholarship was lacking. Obama also said what he thought was good and bad about Scalia and Roberts.

Comment by gasdocpol

he said: “I don’t think he was an exp . . . ” — he then caught himself — “a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation.”

Comment by obamarxist

so he did not say what you said he said.

Comment by gasdocpol

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