Presidential Debate #1: No Knockout Punches

Saturday, September 27th, 2008 | SMASH Politics with

The first Presidential debate of the election season between Barack Obama and John McCain at Ole Miss was a mostly sobering, understated affair. No one tossed any pounding blows. No one came away with any killer lines. There was, I think, a fairly decisive victor but it wasn’t necessarily because of debating skill or technique. This was to be a battle between the 72-year-old McCain and the much younger upstart Obama, the former clearly one with experience in the Senate dealing with the evening’s theme, foreign policy and national security. Obama, by contrast, had to be seen as the distinct challenger and there is evidence that his poll leads have not been as high because voters have taken his relative lack of experience to heart. McCain clearly tried to expose this vulnerability as much as possible. But Obama was able to hold his own against the senior senator.

Some highlights (and lowlights):

1.    What Economic Crisis? What’s a Bail-out?

You had to admire moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS. He pointedly tried to get the two candidates to speak to something they surely had to deal with: the fact that in the last 10 days this country has been reeling from some of the worst economic shocks in decades –banks going under, the government taking over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the stock market plunges, and an ongoing $700 billion relief package being discussed at this moment. What say you, Senators McCain and Obama? Well, though they spent the first 40 minutes or so talking about this and the economy, they could not really offer anything in specifics. McCain wants to cut spending. Obama wants to stop the tax breaks to corporations. We know this. But we learned precious little about how they, as presidents, would handle the current economic situation. The one strong difference that Obama was the reiteration that McCain’s party has always been into de-regulation in a way to allow free markets to do their job.

2.    Foreign Policy: Carrots and Sticks. OK, Mostly Sticks

I’m referring almost exclusively to McCain, for in their foreign policy outlooks these two guys
couldn’t be farther apart from each other. It’s an almost sobering view on McCain’s part:  speak loudly and of course carry a big stick that says that military might is the way to achieve your goals. The problem is that McCain came off as positively bellicose because he seemed too willing to belittle Obama’s “naivete”. We know McCain is the veteran, the former POW, the one who has never met a defense appropriation he didn’t like. But to constantly champion what are neo-conservative positions –e.g., the bizarre idea of a “League of Democracies”—and exult in American military power in the world seemed to target those Reagan Democrats or other like-minded Independents (males) who don’t have their minds made up but who respond favorably to something bold, or kick ass language. This all seemed a bit calculated to show Obama up as the inexperienced kid who would say things like wanting to talk to Iran’s President “without preconditions”. Obama did say this earlier this year but backtracked quickly, yet he was able to get some digs in by mentioning that it has been Henry Kissinger who had endorsed this idea. For his part, Obama could not portray himself as a dove either, so his centrist tendencies were correctly underlined. It’s not a matter of “sitting down for a cup of tea” with Hugo Chavez, but he also rightly upheld the primacy of diplomacy that has been one of the vaguer tendencies of the second Bush Administration, with Secretaries Rice and Gates triumphing over the neo-cons like Dick Cheney. McCain, in his lecturing-type responses, seemed to channel the unilateral tendencies of the first Bush Administration. This was the same one, as Obama asserted, whose myopia fixated on Iraq and imposed the idea of democracy with force.

3.    Missed Opportunities

If McCain wanted to portray himself as the “master” and Obama as his young student, then he slightly succeeded. This is because Obama missed several opportunities to nail McCain and tie him more strongly to what has been a clearly failed Bush foreign policy record. He needed to give more concrete examples and, rhetorically speaking, driving these points over and over again. He did not. In fact, there were moments when Obama would reply to McCain’s initial response by saying that he “mostly agreed” with McCain, then he would qualify what he meant. This is not a proper strategy if what you want to do is emerge from being the shadow that McCain wants to put around you inside of. On Russia, Obama seemed to “agree” with McCain but then he reminded us that he sent out a warning that there was some instability inside the Georgian republics in 2007, and that this had the danger of spreading. What Obama also forgot to mention was that Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s top foreign policy advisor (and current Henry Higgins to Sarah Palin’s Eliza Doolittle) has been on Georgia’s payroll to the tune of six figures in the last year, and has been consulting President Shakashvili. Or that the US has known that placing military advisors inside Georgia in the past year and fomenting entry into NATO they would be angering Moscow. Or, as McCain surely knows, the skirmishes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia would one day lead to the rolling Russian tanks. What I’d also like to know is why Obama didn’t challenge McCain enough. McCain has aligned himself so squarely and wrongly with the Bush Administration, and certainly the neo-cons inside it, and while it’s important to do a little saber-rattling when speaking about Russia (“I look into Putin’s eyes and I see three letters, K-G-B”). Obama should have hammered McCain about this and push for greater diplomacy, but he assumes that such an approach will be rapidly interpreted as naïve (again). On this issue and others, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan (since when is it a “failed state”, according to McCain?) Obama simply did not pursue the wrongheadedness and misplaced bellicosity enough.

4.    Attitude Matters

On several occasions, McCain could not hide his visible disdain for the younger Obama and his responses to foreign policy questions. In terms of proper debate or gentlemanly style, McCain seemed petulant and he never truly faced his opponent as he was speaking. Even as the debate began, moderator Lehrer was at great pains to even get the two gentlemen (especially the wooden McCain) to speak to each other. Obama seemed much more at ease, holding his own and calling McCain “John”. McCain could not do this. He would bristle at points Obama would make and show his frustration while at the podium. The problem for McCain couldn’t be clearer: by appearing dismissive and impatient with Obama, McCain loses his own control and appears like a stuffy stentorian lecturer who does not like to be second guessed. The two clashed dramatically on the issue of the surge in Iraq, with McCain trying to get Obama to admit that he was “wrong” about how it seems to have been working this year. Then the “strategy” versus “tactic” argument started to boil over, with McCain discussing the former when it was actually the latter. If a surge had been a strategy, then it would have clashed with a policy that was wrong from the start back in 2003. The surge was a tactical way to put pressure on the Iraqis to take more control, and this was a shift that came from staffers at the NSC. Indeed, McCain and Obama were on different sides of this tactic, but to have this pedantic dust-up over what a strategy and tactic is during a presidential debate, and to have McCain become so rattled, makes him look less statesmanlike and unsteady.

5.    Not a Home Run —Well, Not Yet

Obama has been the candidate of change, the articulate messenger who has made impressive speeches throughout his campaign. Here at Ole Miss he was operating against a senior senator who has had the experience in dealing in foreign policy that he did not have. That has been the most serious charge (or doubt) against Obama, and one that has been made acute recently even with the addition of Sarah Palin to the ticket. In this respect, however, Obama actually rose above our expectations because he displayed a depth of knowledge that he had not really shown before in this domain. While it was McCain who spewed out the names of Yuschenko and Timoshenko as the political rivals in Ukraine, he also stumbled to utter the name of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran (the first pair are freedom fighters, I suppose, while the latter seeks a “Second Holocaust”). Still, it’s clear that Obama was not only well-coached and rehearsed but it did not seem like he was memorizing either. There were some defensive moments, to be sure, as when McCain kept hectoring to him about what he figured was his inability to grasp things (“What he fails to understand…”) Obama did not take the bait. He kept having to remind the Professor that his grasp was pretty substantial, even if his views were diametrically opposed to his. It’s one thing to call someone naïve and out of touch; it’s quite another when Obama is able to flesh out his positions on many issues, including the gradual pull-out of troops in Iraq and his strong points about restoring America’s place in the world. McCain may not like to hear this (witness the occasional grimace). I agree that this isn’t a populist point that’s gonna sound appealing to most voters, but it does speak to the capital that has been squandered by this administration in these past 8 years.

Winner of Presidential Debate #1: Obama. Score 1-0.

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