Learning from Obama’s 2008 Town Hall Debate: How to Pivot to Taxes

NEW YORK – The transcript from the 2008 McCain-Obama town hall debate is a dreadful read. That showdown, like this one, was streamlined to avoid the spontaneous moments that tripped up other candidates. Moderator Tom Brokaw followed the Jim Lehrer model, keeping questions generic and chiding candidates to stick to the format. Obama said a bunch of stuff that he can’t use now (cutting the deficit!); he used a surprising amount of lines he can look back on fondly. To wit: “We will kill bin Laden; we will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority.”

But the main pattern in the Obama answers is an ability to quickly return to the talking point that was beating up McCain in swing state ads. Taxes. This came up first in a generic question about the economic crisis:

For example, on tax policy, what I want to do is provide a middle class tax cut to 95 percent of working Americans, those who are working two jobs, people who are not spending enough time with their kids, because they are struggling to make ends meet.

Brokaw later asked about the candidates’ priorities for spending cuts. Obama pivoted to taxes.

I mean, Senator McCain has been talking tough about earmarks, and that’s good, but earmarks account for about $18 billion of our budget. Now, when Senator McCain is proposing tax cuts that would give the average Fortune 500 CEO an additional $700,000 in tax cuts, that’s not sharing a burden. And so part of the problem, I think, for a lot of people who are listening here tonight is they don’t feel as if they are sharing the burden with other folks. I mean, you know, it’s tough to ask a teacher who’s making $30,000 or $35,000 a year to tighten her belt when people who are making much more than her are living pretty high on the hog.

Brokaw asked about the “big ticking time bomb” of Social Security and Medicare, and Obama 1) promised reform in his first term (well, you know) and 2) pivoted to taxes.

We’re not going to solve Social Security and Medicare unless we understand the rest of our tax policies. And you know, Senator McCain, I think the “Straight Talk Express” lost a wheel on that one… Senator McCain wants to give a $300 billion tax cut, $200 billion of it to the largest corporations and a hundred thousand of it – a hundred billion of it going to people like CEOs on Wall Street. He wants to give average Fortune 500 CEO an additional $700,000 in tax cuts. That is not fair. And it doesn’t work.

This worked quite well for Obama at the time. That might give liberals some palpitations. The president was actually pretty good, in Denver, at turning every question back to a hit on the Romney tax plan. And boy, did that ever fail him. His opponent simply denied that his tax plan cut rates for the rich. The popular spin on this was that Obama failed to prep for Romney’s denial. But check the transcript – McCain did this, too.

Let’s not raise anybody’s taxes, my friends, and make it be very clear to you I am not in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. I am in favor of leaving the tax rates alone and reducing the tax burden on middle-income Americans by doubling your tax exemption for every child from $3,500 to $7,000.

Obama had miraculous success in 2008 by promising to raise taxes on the wealthy as a way to be fair and close the deficit. It simply isn’t working as well in 2012, when Obama owns four $1 trillion deficits. He can correct plenty of his staging problems in a town hall, compared to a back-and-forth podium debate. But he needs a bigger argument on taxes.