This is the first time Barack Obama and John McCain have faced each other as competitors rather than Senate colleagues, and itâ€™s clear that the chumminess of that institution cast a long shadow over the early part of the debate. Both were cordial, often agreed with one another, and had trouble defining themselves as candidates with different ideas on addressing the problems of the country.
It wasnâ€™t until moderator Jim Lehrer pushed the two of them to articulate their differences that we saw that chumminess start to evaporate.Â One of the overarching themes of Friday nightâ€™s debate was about resources and how best to allocate them. Money, jobs, energy, and even troops were the resources in question, and the politics centered on how much for whom. Tax breaks for oil companies and businesses, or tax breaks for families making $250,000 or less? Which was going to do its economic magic and help the economy recover? Trickle down or bottom up?
On energy, the two candidates were pretty much on the same page, and only differed on details of how much and when. What shocks me the most is Obamaâ€™s support for nuclear energy. Why, if heâ€™s so keen on preventing nuclear â€œsuitcase bombsâ€ from going off in American cities, does he not see the danger of nuclear reactors as terrorist targets? Also, almost no attention is being paid to the huge costs to taxpayers in setting up nuclear reactors, and once they are set up, how do you deal with the nuclear waste? Yucca Mountain canâ€™t hold it all. His pragmatism on oil drilling is understandable, but it overshadows his commitment to alternative energy — which, when McCain chimes in, makes it sound like both men donâ€™t mean it.
McCain stuck to tried and true stump-speech lines: cut spending and reduce taxes — except for the military and veteransâ€™ affairs. The tired line of Republicans coming to Washington to change things only to become corrupted by its culture was perplexing since so-called movement conservatives (radicals, really) have been active in creating the very corrupt culture McCain deplores. The line McCain hammered home over and over was: cut spending, cut spending, cut spending (except for a few little things like the military-industrial complex). So if the military is immune to these spending cuts, whoâ€™s getting their government goodies slashed? It may be the very people who cling to guns and religion when their economic base disintegrates. Why? Well, when you invest in communities, thatâ€™s pork, and McCain is going to teach Washington a lesson on spending — except when it comes to the military.
Foreign policy issues centered on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Russia. And on these issues, it was the finer points where the two disagreed. Timeline for withdrawal vs. coming home with honor in Iraq … working with Pakistan to battle al-Qaeda vs. acting alone to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and repel the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan … meeting with Iranâ€™s president (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) with certain preconditions achieved through a certain process … taking a hard line with Russia by working with democracies vs. working with Russia to control the spread of nuclear weapons. The back-and-forth over preconditions is where things got bogged down; it wasn’t clear that McCainâ€™s criticism of Obama for saying that talking to Ahmadinejad when heâ€™s spewing hatred for Israel is akin to legitimizing Iranâ€™s position. Obama correctly pointed out that when we â€œisolateâ€ states we deem too evil to talk to, they grow more militaristic and seek to acquire nuclear weapons (i.e. Iran and North Korea).
And on and on it went until, mercifully, it was over. In the end, the choices each side presented amounted to the following:
McCain says he has the knowledge and experience to be president. He, and only he, will heal the wounds of war, take care of veterans, make the country safe, cut spending, invest in ethanol, and reduce taxes.
Obama is about investing in the middle class through tax cuts, health care, education investments, and investments in alternative energies. Security for Obama is about domestic security (ports and transit), and stopping nuclear proliferation. In foreign policy, itâ€™s about getting bin Laden, repelling the Taliban, and â€œfinishing the jobâ€ in Afghanistan.
Neither candidate struck that important â€œI feel your painâ€ emotional chord, so itâ€™s important from here on out for both campaigns to sharpen the differences and sell their messages to Americans in distinct ways so the choices are clear.
It has been an extremely wild week when it comes to being an American. I don’t think I need to reiterate why, as our current financial state should be sufficiently explanatory. Having said that, it was difficult to block out those events to be as unbiased as I felt I ought to be with this, the first of the presidential debates between senators John McCain and Barack Obama. Context colors everything, and McCain’s rather flamboyant actions, like temporarily suspending his campaign so he could pretty much stare from the sidelines at the hammering-out of the Wall Street bailout, and subsequently teasing the “will he or won’t he” status of Friday night’s event, painted him as a showboater.
But that shouldn’t have entered into the night’s proceedings, and I did my best to block it out. On the other side of the debates, though, I have clearly failed. Throughout the event I was acutely aware of McCain’s patronizing tone toward Obama. A tactic, to be sure, to reinforce the notion that Obama is naive and not prepared to get down and dirty with the adults, as was McCain’s relentless and slavish need to assert that all roads lead to Iraq. To consistently portray Iraq as the nexus of all our ills is to inject the notion that McCain was one of the few who supported the troop surge, and, through political osmosis, enable him to insist that he was addressing every U.S. woe by being so single-minded. Obama countered by trying to reframe the single-mindedness as myopia, and was marginally successful in doing so.
I say marginally because, all through the debate, McCain used a tactic President Bush used to mind-numbing effectiveness in previous electoral campaigns: batter the talking point mercilessly but don’t offer up much in detail otherwise. McCain invoked Ronald Reagan and General Petraeus shamelessly and even snuck in a mini mash to his lucky rabbit’s foot, Sarah Palin. He attempted to coalesce an Irving Berlin sort of patriotism around trips to war sites — a warm and fuzzy jingoism, if you will — and he repeatedly insinuated that Obama just had no clue how high-level politics is carried out. He also showed a hard-headedness toward his precious Iraq front that was absolutely bone chilling. He wants to stay in there so badly he can taste it, and after tonight we have his lingering taste left to sour on our own palate.
So you would think Obama emerged as a clear winner in the debate. I’m afraid you’d be wrong. As an Obama supporter I got what I was hoping for: ideas for the future, a sober-minded view of where we are right now, and what appeared to be an agenda to carry us through this point to get to the next. Many times I got told what I wanted to hear and felt a wee bit smug each moment I felt Obama snuck in a right hook. Make no mistake, though: even though McCain looked like a seething, grimacing grandpa whose view of the world is summed up with “You young people have absolutely no idea what the real world is like,” that’s what his supporters wanted to hear. It’s really a shame, and brings us right back to the divide between the candidates’ respective acceptance speeches. On the one hand you have someone who is looking for the alternatives. On the other, you have someone saying, “This is how it’s done, and alternatives are child’s play.”
It comes down to this — if you feel Obama actually has ideas for seeing this country through these dark days and you thought McCain showed every bit of his age in his impatience, his disagreeable drowning-out of rebuttal, and most of all his inability to concede that the surge was only a good idea if the initial war in Iraq was justified and not a colossal misappropriation, then Obama won. If, however, you went in expecting McCain to hold the line, to never give up a square foot of ground and to wield “there you go again” countermeasure like a sword and shield, mission accomplished.
I fear that the “undecideds” on whom this election is quickly beginning to hinge upon received no new story tonight, and the event will wind up with no bounce for either candidate, ensuring more hand wringing and fact checking for the next 39 days. Expect at least a few more drama-queen moments from McCain as well as an attempt to set up an October Surprise.
I came into Friday evening wondering how the distractions of the last several days would affect both candidatesâ€™ preparation for this first debate, and how the necessary encroachment of economic issues into the debate would dilute the gravity with which they dealt with foreign policy issues. Now I feel like I neednâ€™t have worried. The debate featured generally strong performances by both candidates, particularly during the 50 minutes after they turned from the economy to the eveningâ€™s intended subject matter. Neither guy struck a knockout (or even a knockdown) blow, andÂ tonight may have shownÂ that both McCain and Obama are suchÂ bright and intuitiveÂ candidatesÂ that we’ll have to wait until all four debates are over to figure out a “winner” based less on zingers or gaffesÂ than on true substance.
Obama, as per his usual, kept his tone consistent, which tends to emphasize the substance of his arguments to the detriment of emotional high points. McCain, on the other hand, made numerous attempts to be â€œfolksyâ€ and strived to be more assertive. Those efforts were undercut to a large extent by his strange refusal to look either at Obama or into the camera, or to address Obama directly despite Jim Lehrerâ€™s goading. His singular focus on Lehrer made him seem rather obstinate and dismissive when compared to Obamaâ€™s willingness to look his opponent in the … well, in the cheek on a regular basis. Obamaâ€™s best moment — the â€œyou were wrongâ€ litany — was stated directly to McCainâ€™s face, and McCain couldnâ€™t return his stare-down.
McCain was trained well by his advisors to express that dismissiveness — not just with sneers and grimaces, but with his repeated (I counted eight) statements that â€œSenator Obama doesnâ€™t seem to understandâ€ one thing or another. However, he wasnâ€™t handed a decent talking point in response to Lehrerâ€™s question about taking â€œa lesson from Iraqâ€; he said heâ€™d learned that â€œyou canâ€™t have a failed strategy that almost causes you to lose a war.” Well, duh! Such a tautology is indicative of McCainâ€™s inability to point to a single foreign policy achievement or idea other than trumpeting the â€œsuccessâ€ of the â€œsurgeâ€ — which, whether heâ€™s correct or not on the limited scope of his argument, is still a political loser amongst an electorate that gave up on the Iraq war a long time ago.
The onset of the debate schedule puts McCain in a somewhat precarious place, thanks to his recent propensity for bald-faced (and generally despicable) lying and false attacks. In the coming days weâ€™re likely to see his statements being picked apart for their factual accuracy much more than Obamaâ€™s. He claimed he voted against allowing President Reagan to send U.S. troops to Lebanon; in fact, McCain wasnâ€™t even in Congress when those troops arrived there, and he only voted on rubber-stamping their continued presence later. His characterization of Obamaâ€™s statements about talking to Iran without â€œpreconditionsâ€ was disingenuous and unfair, though no more than Hillaryâ€™s was six months ago. What McCain really ought to be ashamed of is his accusation that Obama favors â€œmilitary strikesâ€ against Pakistan, and his budget-related statement that â€œwe send $700 billion a year overseas to countries that donâ€™t like us very much.â€ Americaâ€™s foreign-aid budget is actually about $40 billion a year, but Republicans love to exaggerate that budget in a â€œpopulistâ€ attempt to promote budget slashing. The $700 billion number relates to the amount Americans — not their government — spend on foreign oil.Â It also (conveniently) matches the target number of the current bailout package.
One of McCainâ€™s fabrications offered Obama one of several attempts to dig the knife in; unfortunately, Obama rarely rose to the bait. McCain was wrong about General Eisenhowerâ€™s â€œtwo lettersâ€ before D-Day — the general did not write a resignation letter.Â But if I could have whispered in Obamaâ€™s ear right then, I would have said, â€œI agree that General Eisenhowerâ€™s willingness to resign in the event of failure was very honorable. In fact, after the last eight years, Iâ€™d like to see President Bushâ€™s resignation letter in the morning. And I have to say, Senator McCain, Iâ€™d like to see yours, too.â€