Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Non-Event

There was supposed to be a big event in the presidential race last week, and we're not talking about the "Veepstakes," or Saturday night's forum at Rick Warren's megachurch in California.

The event we refer to was scheduled for August 11th, near Fort Hood, Texas. Like Pastor Warren's interviews with Barack Obama and John McCain, the Fort Hood forum represented something new in presidential politics. It would be the first time that presidential candidates answered questions about their military and national security policies by those most interested in such matters--members of the armed forces, their families, and military retirees.

Organized by the wife of an Army officer stationed at Fort Hood, the proposed military forum was sponsored by no less than 15 organizations, ranging from the Military Officers Association of America, to Veterans for Common Sense. CBS News agreed to televise the event, to be held at the Bell County Expo Center in Belton Texas, near Fort Hood. At least 6,000 military members and dependents were expected to attend the forum.

But there was no military town hall meeting in Texas last week. While Republican John McCain agreed to participate in the forum, his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, turned down the invitation, citing "scheduling" conflicts. And, with Mr. Obama declining offers to reschedule, organizers put the event on hold late last month. At this point, it seems unlikely that the Fort Hood forum will ever be held.

Sadly, we predicted as much last month. With Mr. McCain enjoying a sizable lead among military voters and veterans, Obama's advisers apparently decided that the Fort Hood event would be a less-than-ideal venue for their candidate. And, considering the Senator's subsequent performance at Saddleback Church, it may have been a wise decision. If anything, Mr. Obama would have faced even tougher questions from that military crowd, reinforcing his lack of experience in defense and national security matters.

Organizers of the Fort Hood forum still hold out hope that the event can be held. We're not optimistic, but the concept has clear merit. For generations, presidential candidates have discussed security issues in debates and town hall meetings, but the questions have been typically posed by journalists with only a cursory knowledge of military affairs.

Carissa Picard, leader of the Fort Hood organizing committee, decided it was time to let the troops and their families ask the questions. It is an idea whose time has come, and there's little doubt that the military town hall would have been as interesting and informative as the event at Saddleback.

During wartime, those who go in harm's way deserve an opportunity to query politicians who want to serve as their commander-in-chief. Unfortunately, due to Mr. Obama's scheduling problems, the military community at Fort Hood will never get a chance to question the presidential nominees. On the campaign trail, Senator Obama has tried to depict himself as a champion of military families, promising more benefits and faster assistance for those in need.

But Obama's actions fail to match his rhetoric. During his recent foreign policy extravaganza, he took a pass on visiting wounded troops in Germany, after learning that his campaign team--and the traveling media--couldn't accompany him. Instead of making a low-key trip to the Landstuhl military medical center (as a serving Senator), Mr. Obama went to the gym.

If nothing else, Obama's decision to opt out of the Fort Hood event is remarkably consistent with the recent tone of his campaign. The candidate who once pledged to meet John McCain "anytime, anywhere," now seems to have an aversion to joint appearances. He has agreed to only three debates, following the same, predictable format of years past.

As for members of our military, Mr. Obama has adopted a similar policy. He's glad to meet with them, but only on his schedule, and under conditions that he controls. A free-flowing town hall meeting on defense issues, with questions from the people most affected by those policies? Unfortunately, it won't happen at Fort Hood (or any other military community) this election year.

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