Who won the debate?
Mon September 29, 2008 12:04 am

Can I vote "present?"

It was hard to score. One of the factors in a presidential debate is gaffes. There were none. Another is body language. (Remember Al Gore's eye-rolling performance in the first debate of 2000.) Both candidates maintained their discipline, McCain moreso than Obama, who was too visibly eager to start his rebuttals. I give McCain the edge here, though with an assist from CNN, which seemed to focus more on Obama when McCain was talking than the reverse.

This was supposed to be a foreign policy debate, but the economic crisis was uppermost in everyone's minds, and the early focus was on the economy generally and the bailout package specifically. Obama clearly won round one with a crisp opening statement: four things that the package had to accomplish. First, assuring more oversight of the financial system. Second, providing a chance for taxpayers to get their money back as housing regains its value. Third, preventing the money from being used to enrich CEO's with higher salaries and golden parachutes (good luck). Fourth, saving homeowners from foreclosures. He ended by saying, "We also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most [well off], and somehow prosperity will trickle down."

McCain never sounds comfortable talking about economics, except when the subject is small ball: earmarks, pork barrel, "excess and greed in Washington, D.C., and on Wall Street," his "fundamental belief in the goodness and strength of the American worker," his intention to "veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk " It's attitude, not policy.

Obama responded, "Senator McCain is absolutely right that the earmarks process has been abused, which is why I suspended any requests for my home state, whether it was for senior centers or what have you, until we cleaned it up....But let's be clear: Earmarks account for $18 billion in last year's budget. Senator McCain is proposing -- and this is a fundamental difference between us -- $300 billion in tax cuts to some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, $300 billion. Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important. And in his tax plan, you would have CEOs of Fortune 500 companies getting an average of $700,000 in reduced taxes, while leaving 100 million Americans out. Senator McCain is absolutely right that the earmarks process has been abused, which is why I suspended any requests for my home state, whether it was for senior centers or what have you, until we cleaned it up....So my attitude is, we've got to grow the economy from the bottom up. What I've called for is a tax cut for 95 percent of working families, 95 percent....And over time, that, I think, is going to be a better recipe for economic growth than the policies of President Bush that John McCain wants to to follow."

The next exchange exposed a weakness in Obama's debating style. McCain focused on Obama's comment about earmarks, suggesting that Obama represented the Washington view that "It's only $18 billion." Obama responded, "John, nobody is denying that $18 billion is important. And, absolutely, we need earmark reform. And when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely." I think Obama should have moved on. His lawyer's instinct told him that he couldn't let McCain's point go unanswered. But he could have, and should have, ignored it.

Instead, he let McCain put him on the defensive. This happened to Obama time after time in his debates against Hillary. In the Texas debate (it might have been Ohio), she pounded him on not just renouncing the support of Louis Farrakhan; she insisted that he "reject" it. She dangled the bait and Obama swallowed it: He meekly said, okay, he rejected it. One of the worst things you can do in a presidential debate is be defensive. It doesn't look presidential. This was just a small exchange, but it is instructive. Obama was killing McCain on economics, but McCain was able to get inside his head and make him defensive. McCain's instinct is honed by his military experiences, and he never takes a defensive posture. He made no attempt to defend his $300 billion in tax cuts. He attacked: "Now, Senator Obama didn't mention that, along with his tax cuts, he is also proposing some $800 billion in new spending on new programs. Now, that's a fundamental difference between myself and Senator Obama. I want to cut spending. I want to keep taxes low. The worst thing we could do in this economic climate is to raise people's taxes."

Heres another example:

MCCAIN: We had an energy bill before the United States Senate. It was festooned with Christmas tree ornaments. It had all kinds of breaks for the oil companies, I mean, billions of dollars worth. I voted against it; Senator Obama voted for it.

OBAMA: John, you want to give oil companies another $4 billion.

MCCAIN: You've got to look at our record. You've got to look at our records. That's the important thing....

If "Never let your opponent put you on the defensive" is Rule 2 of presidential debating, Rule 1 is, Ignore what your opponent says and get your message out. McCain understands this much better than Obama. That's not his problem. McCain's problem is that (1) his message isn't very good, at least on economics, and (2) He's not the best at delivering it. Plus, he's getting bad advice. Suspending his campaign and contemplating missing the debate are actions contrary to his central message that he is a leader and he makes the tough decisions.

I am going to skip the discussion in which moderator Jim Lehrer tried to get the candidates to say which programs they might postpone or eliminate in order to pay for the bailout. Both Obama and McCain pitched their appeals to the bases of their respective parties. Obama turned the question to his advantage by talking about his priorities for programs he would KEEP: energy independence, health care, education (science and technology in particular), and rebuilding infrastructure; his cuts would come from ending the Iraq war. McCain said he would eliminate the ethanol subsidy and get rid of cost-plus military contracts. His main proposal was a spending freeze on all programs except defense, veterans, and entitlements. He concluded by saying, "A healthy economy with low taxes ... is probably the best recipe for eventually having our economy recover. This is about as clear a difference in the philosophies of the two candidates, and their parties, as you can get.

Now the debate turned to foreign policy. Three major issues dominated the discussion: the Iraq war, the resurgence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and how to deal with Iran. McCain had the advantage here, due to his military background, but Obama had cogent positions and was able to explain his views. McCain had a tendency to get snippy with him, as when he said that Obama didn't know the difference between strategy and tactics. That is the sort of comment that never plays well in debates, especially when few viewers know the difference either.

The first question was, What are the lessons of Iraq? On the whole, Lehrer did not have a good night as moderator, but this was a good question, testing the depth of the responder's knowledge as well as his ability to fashion it into a coherent answer. Obama is in a difficult position here, because he not only opposed the surge at the time it was proposed but has said that, even though it has been successful, he would oppose it again. His answer, which was very fluent, was in three parts. The first was to question whether America should have gone into Iraq in the first place. This didn't seem to lead anywhere; as McCain said, when it was his turn, the next president will not have to deal with this question. But Obama connected the dots by saying that the more important battlefront is Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda and the Taliban are resurgent, and we can hunt down bin Laden. Third, our experience in Iraq proved that the most important military issue is how to use America's power wisely.

The exchange was pretty typical of how the evening went. McCain, who proved throughout the discussion on foreign policy that he is much more conversant with the issues, the places, and the key people than Obama is, nevertheless had trouble presenting a big-picture view. So he attacked. Obama refuses to acknowledge that we are winning in Iraq. And, "If we suffer defeat in Iraq, which General Petraeus predicts we will, if we adopted Senator Obama's set date for withdrawal, then that will have a calamitous effect in Afghanistan and American national security interests in the region. Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand there is a [connection] between the two." And, Obama voted to cut off funding for the troops. On the latter point, Obama had a ready answer: "Senator McCain opposed funding for troops in legislation that had a timetable, because he didn't believe in a timetable. I opposed funding a mission that had no timetable, and was open-ended, giving a blank check to George Bush. We had a difference on the timetable. We didn't have a difference on whether or not we were going to be funding troops."

I happen to agree totally with McCain that setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq is a terrible and dangerous idea, but I'm not scoring this debate on the basis of my own views. I'm scoring it on performance, and McCain just can't put ideas together like this. He speaks from his gut, his instincts, and his experiences, but he doesn't come across as a big-picture guy. I was surprised that the polls had Obama winning the debate decisively, but maybe the discussion about Iraq reveals a possible reason why: Perhaps viewers thought Obama came across as more presidential than McCain.

Looking at the transcript, I think Lehrer bobbled the ball by directing the next question, on Afghanistan, to Obama, making it two in a row. Obama was ready. "I would send two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan. Now, keep in mind that we have four times the number of troops in Iraq, where nobody had anything to do with 9/11 before we went in, where, in fact, there was no al Qaeda before we went in, but we have four times more troops there than we do in Afghanistan. And that is a strategic mistake, because every intelligence agency will acknowledge that al Qaeda is the greatest threat against the United States and that Secretary of Defense Gates acknowledged the central front -- that the place where we have to deal with these folks is going to be in Afghanistan and in Pakistan." The discussion might have taken a different turn had McCain gotten the question. He would have had the first word on whether Iraq or Afghanistan was the central battleground. Here is what he said when it came his turn to respond to Obama:

"Now General Petraeus has praised the successes [in Iraq], but he said those successes are fragile and if we set a specific date for withdrawal -- and by the way, Senator Obama's original plan, they would have been out last spring before the surge ever had a chance to succeed. Osama bin Laden and General Petraeus have one thing in common that I know of, they both said that Iraq is the central battleground." This would have put Obama on the defensive. McCain was also able to suggest that Obama was wrong to contemplate cutting off aid to Pakistan and to support strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistani territory. (Sarah Palin also supported strikes across the border in her interview with Charles Gibson.)

It was McCain who sounded more temperate on the issue: "I'm not prepared at this time to cut off aid to Pakistan. So I'm not prepared to threaten it, as Senator Obama apparently wants to do, as he has said that he would announce military strikes into Pakistan. We've got to get the support of the people of Pakistan. He said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan. Now, you don't do that. You don't say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government." Obama's response was, "If the United States has al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out." No doubt that would be McCain's policy as well.

McCain did get the next question: What is the threat that Iran poses to the United States? His answer that Iraq's acquisition of a nuclear weapon would pose a threat to Israel's existence, and "we cannot have a second Holocaust." He proposed strict sanctions in cooperation with our democratic allies. Obama too favored sanctions but said that no sanctions would be effective without the cooperation of Russia and China. Obama returned to his theme that Iraq is at the root of our problems: "Ironically, the single thing that has strengthened Iran over the last several years has been the war in Iraq. Iraq was Iran's mortal enemy. That was cleared away. And what we've seen over the last several years is Iran's influence grow. They have funded Hezbollah, they have funded Hamas, they have gone from zero centrifuges to 4,000 centrifuges to develop a nuclear weapon. So obviously, our policy over the last eight years has not worked."

Then Obama said something that caused the most serious disagreement in the debate: In addition to sanctions, he said, "We are also going to have to, I believe, engage in tough direct diplomacy with Iran and this is a major difference I have with Senator McCain, this notion [that] by not talking to people, we are punishing them, has not worked. It has not worked in Iran, it has not worked in North Korea. In each instance, our efforts of isolation have actually accelerated their efforts to get nuclear weapons." McCain immediately pounced: "What Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a 'stinking corpse,' and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments. This is dangerous. It isn't just naive; it's dangerous. And so we just have a fundamental difference of opinion."

I don't agree that sitting down with bad guys legitimatizes their behavior. Sitting down with bad guys says one thing and one thing only: that we want something from them, and they want something from us. High-level talks are always preceded by lower-level talks, but that is not the same as laying down preconditions to having talks. Being a bully gets you nowhere. The failure to use diplomatic channels has produced no benefits. Laying down preconditions will produce no benefits. The only thing that produces benefits in diplomacy is talking. Nixon's visit to China, which changed the balance of power in the Cold War, would never have taken place if he had first insisted on preconditions, such as concessions in the area of human rights.

The final area of discussion was about Russia, and the Georgian conflict in particular. Of the latter, Obama had said, "Both sides ought to show restraint." McCain pounced: "Well, I was interested in Senator Obama's reaction to the Russian aggression against Georgia. His first statement was, 'Both sides ought to show restraint.' Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn't understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia." I think McCain was off base here. There was nothing amiss or naive in Obama's asking both sides to use restraint. If anything, it recognized the reality of the situation. The most important thing for the next president is to understand the fundamental geopolitical situation in which the United States finds itself as a result of the Iraq war. We are tied down in Iraq. We don't even have enough troops to upgrade our forces in Afghanistan. As for Georgia, we are holding no cards in a military situation that exists deep inside a region that used to be part of the Soviet Union. We can criticize Russian aggression, but we cannot do anything about it unless we believe we are ready to wage war against Russia, and clearly we are not. The Iraq war has given the Iranians and the Russians room to maneuver, secure in the knowledge that we cannot interfere in any meaningful way.

So back to the original question: Who won the debate? It was close, but I think Obama won it. He won it because his answers were clear and had a big-picture view about them. And he won it because he was a little ahead going into the debate and McCain did not do anything that changed the race in his favor, not did Obama make the kind of mistake that changed the race in McCain's favor. Another day passed, one fewer day for McCain to turn the race around, and Obama still has the lead. That's why I think he won the debate. Barely.

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