Inspiring Town Hall meeting at the birthplace of the Constitution

Philadelphia is one of the most heavily Democrat cities there is. So, when I read that John McCain's Straight Talk America was coming to Philadelphia for a Town Hall, I just had to go. That required standing in a long line in front of the Constitution Center, and waiting another two hours, but it was worth it to see McCain in person, get a feel for his supporters, and watch him work the crowd.

The Philadelphia Inquirer sent veteran reporter Larry Eichel to cover the event, and his report is on today's front page.

At a town-hall meeting in Philadelphia yesterday, Sen. John McCain promised a vigorous campaign to carry Pennsylvania in November.

Even as he spoke, he was drawing criticism from Democrats for his comments in a morning television interview that he wanted to reduce U.S. casualties in Iraq but that exactly when all the troops come home was "not too important."

During the town-hall meeting, at the National Constitution Center, McCain assured a crowd of 600 that he would "compete and win" in the state.

"We're going to go to the small towns in Pennsylvania," McCain said, "and I'm going to tell them I don't agree with Sen. Obama that they cling to their religion and the Constitution because they're bitter."

Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, famously damaged his own prospects in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary - which he lost to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton by more than 200,000 votes - by saying that the bitterness of small-town residents over their economic circumstances explained their devotion to religion and their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

I find it noteworthy that Larry Eichel did not accuse McCain of "mangling" his remarks as did the Boston Globe:
the presumptive Republican nominee seemed to mangle the controversial quote from Obama, who told a private fund-raiser in San Francisco in April that he was having trouble reaching "bitter" small-town voters who "cling to guns or religion."

McCain said Obama, who later conceded he chose his words poorly, belittled small-town residents who cling to religion or "the Constitution."

"We're going to go to the small towns in Pennsylvania and I'm gonna to tell them I don't agree with Senator Obama that they cling to their religion and the Constitution because they're bitter," said McCain, who might have been referring to the Second Amendment right to bear arms. "I'm gonna tell them they have faith and they have trust and support the Constitution of the United States because they have optimism and hope... That's what America's all about."

He made the remarks at the start of a town hall meeting at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the same venue where Obama gave his widely praised speech in March on race and politics.

It is McCain's second slip of the tongue in two days.

Not so fast. I might be wrong, but I listened to the remarks carefully, and I think McCain used the word "Constitution" quite deliberately. I think he intended to make a calculated, politically provocative reminder -- at the Constitution Center, in Philadelphia -- that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is an inseparable part of the Constitution. To illustrate my point, imagine if Barack Obama had accused bitter Pennsylvanians of clinging "to free speech or religion." While the outrage would have been fatal to his campaign, the word "Constitution" would have immediately have legitimately been read in by implication, and it would have been entirely proper to accuse Obama of saying they "cling to their religion and the Constitution because they're bitter."

I think the Globe's criticism highlights a double standard. The right to free speech is considered an inseparable part of the Constitution, while the right to keep and bear arms is considered not a right at all.

Thus, McCain's political characterization of the right to keep and bear arms with the word "Constitution" becomes a "slip of the tongue" in Boston. As to why that argument wasn't advanced by Larry Eichel, I'm not sure; perhaps he's a seasoned enough reporter to sense that it was deliberate.

Similarly, the very anti-gun Philadelphia Daily News not only didn't accuse McCain of a flub, but reported that

"He seemed relaxed and sure-footed, offering questioners a microphone for follow-up questions if they wanted."
In a Fox News writeup, I found a video of the remark. Watch for yourself.

I don't know whether the embed will work, but here it is.

[For me, it works in Mozilla, but not IE... Typical.]

Even though I was sitting in the back row, I managed to get a few fairly decent pictures.




And here are the media, who (much to my envy) had the advantage of being on higher ground:


My videos were only of fair quality, but the acoustics were terrible, so I think this YouTube video (showing his discussion of Iran in reply to a question) will give a better idea of the event:

Via PolitickerPA who also comments on the seemingly odd choice of Philadelphia:

Philadelphia was a curious choice for McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, to open his general election campaign in Pennsylvania. Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 5-1 in this liberal hotbed, and even urban Republicans often tend to lean Democratic. He will almost certainly lose the city by huge margins, with some pollsters analysts telling that his opponent, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) could rack up as much as a whopping 85 percent of the city's votes.

But from the moment he took the stage to raucous applause from his supporters, McCain made it clear he wouldn't be ceding ground in the city or the state.

"Let me assure you, we will compete and win in the state of Pennsylvania," he said.

McCain spoke for about 25 minutes and answered questions for another 25, with topics running the gamut of policy issues from foreign policy and health care to the economy and crime. He reiterated his challenge to Obama to join him in 10 town hall meetings throughout the summer, and even revived the primary season controversy over remarks Obama made about rural Pennsylvanias.

Yes, and I think he revived the controversy by adding some deliberate sting. Will Obama take the bait as the Globe did, and accuse McCain of mangling his earlier mangling of the Constitution? I think McCain would relish the fight.

Anyway, I have to say, the man really connects with his audience and knows how to work a Town Hall crowd. Perhaps that's why Obama doesn't want to meet him in that type of arena.

McCain spoke very politely and respectfully of Obama, praising his campaign. (He also welcomed Hillary Clinton's supporters, which drew cheers.) However he stressed that there are "fundamental, deep-seated disagreements" between him and Barack Obama -- particularly the following:

  • Health care "I want Americans to make their own choices for health care. Sen. Obama wants the government to make the choices for you."
  • Taxation He spoke strongly against tax increases, mentioned the devastation caused by Smoot Hawley, stated his opposition to raising the capital gains tax, and pointed out that a corporate tax increase would be a disaster, as companies are already relocating to countries like Ireland which have lower corporate taxes. Music to the ears of most libertarians.
  • National defense and the war in Iraq From Politicker
    "I don't have to tell you what tough times we're in, and we need to keep taxes low," he said. "Why on earth would anyone consider raising taxes in such trying times?"

    He insisted that Iraq remains the central front in the war on terrorism, and chastised Obama for wanting to withdraw troops.

    "We face the threat of Islamic extremism," he said. "It is a transcendent evil. ... It's hard to encompass how evil this radical extremism is. Have no doubt that they want to destroy everything we have and believe in.

    "Every casualty is something that pains us and grieves us," he added. "But the consequences of failure would be genocide and chaos in the region."

    A nuclear armed Iran would be intolerable, and McCain criticized Obama's offer to have unconditional talks with a man dedicated to the destruction of Israel (a second Holocaust), and a state which is a leading sponsor terrorism.
  • He repeatedly slammed pork spending and, noting how legislating becomes laden with cumbersome earmarks, and I enjoyed his sarcastic rhetorical charactization of the Farm Bill:

    Who could vote against the Farm Bill?
    "Well I did!" he exclaimed, to much applause.

    Obviously, energy was much on the mind of the crowd, and McCain is unabashedly, outspokenly in favor of developing nuclear power and alternative forms of energy. He is, however, taking heat for his stand against oil exploration in the ANWR:

    Larry, I'm with McCain at a town hall meeting in Philadelphia today where the senator was asked for his position on drilling in ANWR and elsewhere. He wasn't happy the subject came up. "I knew I should have ended this [before that question]," he said.

    He said that he opposed drilling in ANWR for the same reason that he "would not drill in the Grand Canyon... I believe this area should be kept pristine." (Proposed oil and gas exploration in ANWR would only affect 2,000 of its 19 million acres, or 0.01 percent.)

    On off-shore drilling, McCain said, "I respect the rights of the states to control the waters off their coasts, but I think we should tell states like California and Florida that we will drastically increase the revenues they would receive [if they opened up those waters for exploration]."

    FWIW, McCain had a wry grin when he said he "should have ended this," and the audience laughed.

    I disagree with McCain on ANWR, but to say his energy policies are the same as Barack Obama's (as some have) is simply not the case.

    In light of the strong interest he expressed in nuclear power and alternatives to fossil fuel, what about fusion power?

    M. Simon has discussed fusion extensively, and has gone so far as to call McCain a possible "Fusion President."

    Unfortunately, as is the case with conventional nuclear power, the French are ahead of the U.S. in terms of development with their ITER fusion project.

    But the groundbreaking research has been done for a system that shows every indication of being more promising than the French -- the Bussard fusion project. This might be an ideal issue for McCain to jump on, assuming he's willing to stick his neck out and be the fusion candidate.

    Considering that Bussard was an old Navy guy (and McCain is an old Navy guy) why not?

    Just thought I'd offer a suggestion instead of some of the usual criticism McCain gets from the left as well as the right.

    Speaking of criticism, there were leftist demonstrators, and I wouldn't want to be accused of leaving them out of my writeup. When I arrived, activists wearing red "Working America" shirts were greeting people and encouraging cars to war if they loved honk or something.

    This young woman clearly saw me coming, and I suspect that because I was wearing a suit, she assumed I was in league with Big Oil. So she really stood up to me!


    In my usual callused fashion, I walked past her, unreformed and unconverted to her cause. But as I walked past the group, I drew another stare, from a youth with a sign that said "BUSH & MCCAIN HEART BIG OIL."


    It just warmed my heart to see the devotion of these kids -- taking off from either valuable school time or their even more valuable summer vacation time (I don't know which) just so they could take a stand against the Bush-McCain War for Big Oil.

    As I exited, there were more demonstrators, this time with woman from Code Pink. As you can see, she also wanted to confront me with her eloquent sign proclaiming that "McCain Hearts War":


    The sign on the right says "More War Less Jobs Vote McCain." While it really should say "fewer" and not less, I don't think it's especially productive to argue with demonstrators.

    Others did, however. A spontaneous group of young McCain supporters countered the tri-syllabic chant of "O-BAM-A" with one of their own: ''GET-A-JOB!" (Of course, the t-shirts worn by some of the activists said "Working America," which is the name of a union outfit, which made me suspect that these demonstrators might be anything but employed, although I can't prove my suspicions.)

    All in all, it was a lot of fun, and like many in the crowd, I was left feeling more enthusiastic about McCain and his chances than ever before.

    UPDATE: Rick Moran looks at McCain's chances, and thinks they're not good -- especially because of the attempt to tie him to Bush:

    I'm sure if McCain had his druthers, he would answer any question about Bush by saying "George who?" Even if it were possible, the Democrats will not let him get away with it. They will tie McCain to Bush using a political Gordian Knot that will make it very difficult for McCain to emerge as his own candidate. "New politics" aside, they will use the oldest tricks in the book to make people think "Bush" whenever they see or hear "McCain.

    Yes, I feel sorry for John McCain. He doesn't deserve the shellacking he is in for unless several unlikely scenarios unfold. Obama could be severely damaged by some rookie mistake or misstep. This is not likely to turn things around for McCain if only because the press seems to be in a very protective mood when it comes to Obama.

    I think McCain has done much to distinguish himself from Bush. Not only is he a veteran of the bruising 2000 campaign (which involved nasty dirty tricks), but as he reminded yesterday's audience, he was an early critic of Bush's conduct of the Iraq War, who turned out to be right.

    I think the Bush=McCain meme not only gives McCain an opening to exploit, it makes him the underdog.

    But can McCain come up from underdog status to win?

    As he demonstrated before, yes he can.

    MORE: Speaking of fusion, Glenn Reynolds links this post about ongoing progress with the research started by Bussard (the WB-7 device "runs like a top"):

    If the Polywell system's worth is proven, that could provide a cheaper, faster route to the same goal - and that's why there's a groundswell of grass-roots interest in Nebel's progress. What's more, a large-scale Polywell device could use cleaner fusion fuels - for example, lunar helium-3, or hydrogen and boron ions. Nebel eventually hopes to make use of the hydrogen-boron combination, known as pB11 fusion.

    "The reason that advanced fuels are so hard for conventional fusion machines is that you have to go to high temperatures," Nebel explained. "High temperatures are difficult on a conventional fusion machine. ... If you look at electrostatics, high temperatures aren't hard. High temperatures are high voltage."

    Most researchers would see conventional tokamak machines as the safer route to commercial fusion power. There's a chance that Bussard's Polywell dream will prove illusory, due to scientific or engineering bugaboos yet to be revealed. But even though Nebel can't yet talk about the data, he's proud that he and his colleagues at Emc2 have gotten so far so quickly.

    "By God, we built a laboratory and an experiment in nine months," he said, "and we're getting data out of it."

    It looks very encouraging to me.

    MORE: Glenn Reynolds says,

    "If he actually visits ANWR, he'll see that it's hardly comparable to the Grand Canyon."
    I didn't know people even visited ANWR, but I guess they can. This guy did:
    Getting to where you can get there from there

    Getting to the Arctic Refuge, located in the extreme northeastern corner of the state of Alaska is not simple. From Oregon, you have to fly to Seattle, transfer to a flight to Fairbanks, then take a charter air service to a village where a bush pilot will then take you the remainder of the way. We flew from Fairbanks to Arctic Village, a small native Gwich'in town, then were flown in a small 3-seater to our put-in point. Sometimes there is a story in just getting there so here's where the journal begins...

    That's in the middle of summer, of course. In the winter, it's dark all day.

    UPDATE (from the road): My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, and welcome all!

    posted by Eric on 06.12.08 at 10:26 AM


    I think your take on McCain's use of the word 'Constitution' is correct. You will observe, however, that in this context it points to the Second Amendment. If only he would defend the First Amendment as fervently!

    Bob Thompson   ·  June 12, 2008 12:52 PM

    Really nice report! As a Philly guy, Iam embarrassed to say I did not even know McCain was in town. But I have three of his yard signs.

    Let me know if you ever need some help covering a local event.

    AJ Lynch   ·  June 12, 2008 10:49 PM

    ITER is a joint project of all the major industrialized countries, including France and the U.S. Your link, BTW, was to a post of yours which seemed to approve the U.S. not funding its share of ITER.

    Rich Rostrom   ·  June 13, 2008 3:12 AM

    "...... the shellacking he is in for unless several unlikely scenarios unfold. Obama could be severely damaged by some rookie mistake or misstep..."

    The ones he's made so far aren't damaging enough?

    "..... This is not likely to turn things around for McCain if only because the press seems to be in a very protective mood when it comes to Obama......"

    They are starting to turn. After they've been in the tank for awhile they start to bristle when anyone tells them they are in the tank and then they very reactively try to climb out of the tank.

    Yehudit   ·  June 13, 2008 4:07 AM

    Regarding the guy making the trip to ANWR, nice work if you can get it. I have to go to work every day. I'm lucky if I can get a week off to visit Mexico (now that's a journey!).

    What does it cost to visit ANWR?

    Sigh. I guess it's just my luck.

    paul a'barge   ·  June 13, 2008 6:36 AM

    Let's keep score here: On one hand, Senator McCain loses a few votes in Massachusetts because a local paper thinks he misquoted Senator Obama. On the other hand, Senator McCain picks up support from supporters of the 2nd Amendment in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Let's see, which states will be swing states in November?

    Rbenjamin   ·  June 13, 2008 8:51 AM

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