Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Town Hall Tussle

By Shawn Healy
Senators John McCain and Barack Obama engaged in a spirited town hall debate last evening at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. Both candidates largely stuck to their typical talking points, and rarely answered the questions from the audience directly. It was McCain who presented perhaps the lone new program of the evening, a plan to purchase mortgages from homeowners on the verge of default, to refinance them at their current value with more manageable interest rates. Obama, in response, provided general support for the idea, but suggested that it was already a component of the recent Wall Street "rescue" package.

If a packed arena with a podium at center stage is Obama's venue of choice, McCain's is the more intimate town hall where he can engage in back-and-forth bantering with attendees. It was disappointing that moderator Tom Brokaw filtered audience questions and the rules forbade give-and-take between the candidates and the undecided voters asking questions. Moreover, Brokaw frequently asked follow-up questions of his own, several of them quite wordy, further diminishing the effects of this alternative format.

These restrictions considered, both candidates interacted with the audience on a personal level, paying homage to the validity of their questions, and greeting them by their first names. Though they often dodged the question after an initial acknowledgment, it was refreshing to hear directly from voters about their issues of concern in this pivotal election. The economy was certainly top of mind, but health care, the environment, and entitlement reform also entered the fray. The final half hour of the evening centered on foreign policy.

McCain spent much of the evening making policy distinctions with his opponent, continually forcing Obama on the defensive, though the junior Illinois senator often returned with stunning counterpunches of his own, repeatedly tying McCain to President Bush and the "failed" economic policies of the past eight years. These exchanges never turned personal, and for that both candidates should be commended.

It was said that McCain needed a game changing performance on this early October evening four weeks out from Election Day given that he trails in national tracking polls and also in a number of key battleground states where the election will be won or lost. This was clearly not the case, though McCain was arguably a narrow victor when the outcome was sent to the judges otherwise known as the American people.

A moment late in the debate may indeed have stood as the clincher. McCain was asked a foreign policy-related question from a retired chief petty officer of the Navy. He greeted him warmly, saying something to the effect that he had learned a great deal from chief petty officers during his time in service, shaking his hand and offering an embrace that was warmly received. Obama's response lacked the same candor and bond. Taken together, this moment spoke to McCain's decided advantage entering the evening, and raises the stakes even further for the final presidential debate next Wednesday at Hoefstra University in NY.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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