YouTube video

Minutes after the termination of the second of three Presidential debates between Barack Obama and John McCain, Senior Editor Paul Jay sat down with Bill Fletcher Jr.. In part one of their conversation Bill shares his dissatisfaction with Obama’s unwillingness to advocate for any radical policy changes on the major issues and his analysis of the contempt which McCain has shown for Obama over the campaign.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: On Tuesday night, Barack Obama and John McCain held the second debate in their presidential campaign. And joining us from Washington, DC, to discuss the debate is Bill Fletcher. He’s a columnist, activist, author, labor organizer. He’s the executive editor of The Black Commentator, and his newest book, cowritten with Fernando Gapasin, is entitled Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Towards Social Justice. Welcome, Bill.


JAY: So let’s just go to it. What did you make of the debate?

FLETCHER: Well, there were no knockouts. You know, I was sitting there sort of on the edge of my seat, wondering who was going to mess up, who was going to strike a decisive blow, and neither did. I thought that in the beginning it certainly was the case that Barack Obama held sway when he was talking about domestic issues, talking about the economy. When it got into foreign policy, as some other commentators have already said, this is something that McCain seems very comfortable with. He didn’t break any new ground, but they sort of ended up tying. But it was what McCain needed was a real body blow, and he didn’t get it in this debate.

JAY: So as far as the horse race goes, no knockout. Now let’s get into what, in terms of the real world, what that debate was. I was struck by the fact that it’s like watching a play, and halfway through the play a bomb goes off in the theater, they pause for just a moment to recognize a bomb went off and then go back to the script they’ve been playing for every night for the past several months. They talked about being in such a momentous time in terms of economic crisis, but they’ve more or less went back to message track.

FLETCHER: I think that that’s largely true, Paul. I think that Obama was attempting to convey urgency as well as hope. But his strategy is one where he doesn’t want to scare off the so-called middle voter or the undecided with very radical solutions. You know, you get the sense that he is stepping up to the precipice, prepared to suggest some fairly dramatic steps, both on the economy, the environment, sometimes about foreign policy, and then he stops. And I think that that’s something that I find unsettling.

JAY: Well, I guess you could argue that he’s actually leading in the polls, and that if the election was held today, he would win. So in some sense you could say, “Who the heck are we to say he’s wrong?” On the other hand, if he doesn’t begin to rally people around a vision that allows for a more serious change in policy, it’s going to be hard to do it afterwards, I would think.

FLETCHER: Well, I think that that’s true, but I think, look, we have just a few more weeks left. And in that time, it’s going to be really all-out for both candidates in terms of getting their voters to the polls. The thing that this candidacy has done is it has mobilized and inspired millions. And my guess, Paul, is that after the election, while there is absolutely the danger of the demobilization that could mirror what happened after Clinton was elected in ’92, that there’s going to be a lot of people, particularly younger folks, that are going to be looking for something very different, and they’re going to want to push and push hard. So that’s where my optimism lies.

JAY: Well, in terms of the horse race and the politics of it at that level, in the last few days there’s been a lot of talk about Obama being a friend of an old weatherman, and Palin calling him [inaudible] you know, hangs out with domestic terrorists. And there’s this underlying dark side to the McCain campaign which is trying to invoke racist underpinnings in some of America. And there was one moment in the debate which I thought, even though he was trying to be the diplomatic McCain during the debate, it kind of broke out through his self-control. Now I’m going to play you that moment.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: By the way, my friends. I know you grow a little weary of this back-and-forth. It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate, loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me.


So when McCain said “that one,” it seemed to just be dripping with contempt, and it’s the kind of contempt we’ve been hearing in Sarah Palin’s speeches, and McCain’s stump speeches, not so much during the debate. In terms of this tone and contempt, to what extent do you think this is an attempt to invoke racism? And do you find it somewhat interesting that it’s actually not working?

FLETCHER: It is an attempt to demean the character and the candidacy of Senator Obama and to treat him with ridicule. And I think that you’re right. I mean, this is not something new; it’s been fairly consistent. The only exception was on the night of Obama’s acceptance speech, when McCain did that ad congratulating him. But beyond that, there has been consistent contempt. And there is this—see, the underlying feature, underlying dark side, as you said, is not so much the contempt. There is this underlying racial code about this uppity black guy who’s not ready for prime-time, and that are you, as a white, undecided voter, really prepared to take the “risk,” quote-unquote, to go with him? I mean, that’s really what McCain and Palin are saying, and they’re saying that because they can’t talk about the issues. I mean, that’s the thing. They cannot talk about the issues, they can’t discuss the issues, because the issues are a tremendous setup for Obama’s message. So that’s why they’re [inaudible]

JAY: Is there also this sort of underlying, almost visceral attempt to say something that I guess resonates with a section of Americans, which is a black man can’t be a real American, you can’t actually be black and a real patriot, because to be a real patriot means being white?

FLETCHER: Oh, there’s no question about it. And not only are the two of them saying that, but their surrogates are sometimes saying it very explicitly, as happened just the other day, when one of the supporters of the campaign was emphasizing Barack Obama’s middle name, Hussein. I mean, this has been happening from the very beginning.

JAY: Isn’t it something remarkable, in some ways—or maybe not remarkable, maybe this is what America is—that Obama’s leading, Obama’s ahead in states that one might have hypothesized this kind of racist message might have had some resonance? He’s leading in precisely these kinds of areas, including, apparently, even rural Ohio.

FLETCHER: It is remarkable. But, you know, Paul, I’m holding my breath, because the problem is that we’ve never been in a situation like this before, with a black person running for the top office. And I’m very, very uneasy about the polls when it comes to white voters. They may be responding to his message. They seem to be, according to the polls.

JAY: Well, I’ll tell you, we have a team in a small town in Ohio today, and the vast majority of people are saying, “We’re voting Obama, and everybody we know is voting Obama,” and the issue of race just did not come to the surface. At any rate, in the second segment of our interview, let’s get into the economics of today’s debate and what you would have liked to have seen from either of the candidates. Please join us for Part 2 of our interview with Bill Fletcher.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Bill Fletcher Jr. has been an activist since his teen years and previously served as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO; he is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions and The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Fletcher Jr. is also a member of The Real News Network Board of Directors.