Reacting to the news that Barack Obama has indicated a willingness to appear with John McCain at town halls over the course of the campaign, Dean Barnett calls Obama "the king of the teleprompter" and further argues that "Obama does poorly at debates, and is a weak extemporaneous speaker."
Dean's got a keen eye and likes golf, so it's rare that I disagree with him. But he's wrong on this. I saw nearly all of the 47,342 Democratic debates. Obama won a few, lost a few and was average in others. Even if his performances were uneven (and I thought he had more good ones than bad), I'm not convinced most viewers would agree that he "does poorly" as a matter of course.
But most of my difference with Dean comes in his assessment of Obama as "a weak extemporaneous speaker." Not true. When I followed him around Iowa for a week-plus back in December, Obama participated in numerous town halls. He already had a reputation as an excellent orator -- the king of the teleprompter -- and that was certainly in evidence on that trip. But I came away from the trip surprised at how good he was in less formal settings. Obama was best in the routine exchanges with voters and students that dominated his schedule that week -- answering difficult questions with the ease and sophistication of a politician with much greater experience. Yes, he makes the occasional gaffe -- 57 states -- but over time his style will be more an asset than a drawback.
I have long thought there was a risk in dismissing Obama as a lightweight or as merely a good speaker. I still think that's true.
But there is good reason for McCain to draw Obama out in these public settings: The more he talks, the more he will reveal his far-left politics. Obama will say things that would elicit nods of approval among his spiritual mentors in Chicago or in the Senate Democratic cloakroom or from his wife. (See his moral preening on the issue of the flag lapel pin, for instance.) Engage terrorist-supporting dictators without conditions? For most of the country, that's crazy. In left-wing intellectual circles it's not controversial. It's why, when controversy first surfaced over the mad rantings of Reverend Wright, Obama thought they could be best understood in context. It never occurred to him that such context was as offensive as the stray quotes that made news.
McCain's campaign is confident -- maybe overconfident -- about his chances in head-to-head debates/town halls with Obama. This is why.