Here’s Part 1 of my assessment of Friday night’s Presidential Debate. Part 2 will come on Sunday.
All I can say is, I was wrong. Jim Lehrer does want to be the next Tim Russert.
I will say, I did not sense any partisanship on Lehrer’s part, but he sure dug into follow up questions, including a lot quizzical looks in reaction to the answers. Making matters a bit worse was his oafish attempts at turning the debate into a conversation, almost as if McCain and Obama were seeking marital counselling. “Say that to Senator McCain”. “Direct yourself to Senator Obama”. “Do you agree with Senator Obama?”. I don’t know if that was part of the original ground rules that was set prior to the debate, but it was a bit disorienting for the candidates, and sometimes just distracted from the actual answer.
The ground rules as defined by Lehrer at the beginning stated that the debate would be broken up into roughly 9 minute segments, with 2 minute answers from each candidate to the lead question, with “direct exchanges between the candidates and moderator followups permitted.” Nothing about the moderator coaching the candidates to talk to each other instead of the American People. Naturally, the candidates and the moderator were not able to maintain the schedule, but overall the debate was well done. Both candidates were more or less civil with each other, although it seemed that Obama was more willing to address his opponent by his first name than McCain was.
One thing to note off the top: I counted eight times (maybe nine?) that Obama said that McCain was right. I hope he continues that approach, as the subliminal message is awesome. I’m sure that Obama believes this is an effective way to show his willingness to stretch his arm across the aisle.
Overall, I think the debate was a draw. Both candidates appeared to be knowledgeable about the issues, although to differing degrees, both were articulate, and both provided some amount of support for their answers. Both managed to get a similar amount of criticisms in about the other. Both provided support to demonstrate their experience, although McCain was able to make a much stronger case.
Obama was a bit more charismatic. He was able to appear more relaxed and comfortable with the entire debate. His was also a little more anxious, however, when he wanted to “set the record straight” when his opponent made a criticism.
McCain was, in my opinion, able to take the better position on issues, and provide the most knowledgeable and factual assessment of the events that are currently facing us. His arguments come from years of experience and solid knowledge of the underlying issues throughout the world. Obama, while obviously knowledgeable and able to speak to different issues (and pronounce names correctly… I think he practiced), appeared to have a much more pedestrian understanding of foreign affairs issues, including the Iraq war. Clearly, Obama has stronger grasp of domestic affairs than foreign.
Lehrer covered this with three questions, one about where the candidates stand on the bailout, one about how each as President differentiates themselves from the other, and lastly, what each of them would do to fund the bailout (presumably, what would they cut).
Both candidates shared a similar set of concerns about the bailout, ensuring that taxpayers are protected, that CEOs aren’t enriched by the bailout, and that there is appropriate oversight.
Obama showed his ability to politicize this issue by talking about how it was Bush and McCain’s fault (showing his ignorance of root causes of the meltdown) and repeatly talking about “how we got here”. Not talking much about how to move forward, although he does make a good point that the current regulation model needs to be reviewed and revised to reflect the products, tools, and social makeup of the 21st century. Best line: “People are wondering: How is this going to affect me?”. Good emotional link to people. Worst line: “For the viewers who are watching, I am optimistic about the capacity of us to come together with a plan”. That said nothing. Better to say “We will have a workable plan”.
McCain demonstrates a strong sense of confidence in the work that is underway, and expresses support for the bipartisan effort. Strong support for tax cuts, spending cuts. Best line: “Well how about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlements?” That was in response to Lehrer’s pressing for something from both candidates that expressed the fact that $700 billion would require some kind of cut in spending or increase in taxes. I don’t know if McCain has been thinking about that for a while, but it was unexpected and a great spontaneous idea, and possibly risky idea to put on the table. Worst line: “I also warned about corporate greed and excess and CEO pay and all that”. That was in response to Obama talking about his “whistle-blowing” to the Treasury. Generally, doesn’t look good to do the “Me too” thing unless it’s really constructive to the arguement… this came off as if there was a contest to name all the good things you did.
War in Iraq
This topic probably demonstrates some of the core differences between the two candidates. McCain supports the war in Iraq, and supports completing the work without a timetable. Obama thinks we should never have gone into Iraq (and can’t stop saying that), and insists on a timetable to get out of Iraq, contending that we need to get those troops into Afghanistan and find and kill bin Laden. In discussing this issue, both candidates communicated very clearly their position and left little room for any real argument: one has to simply look at both positions and decide which one believes is correct.
McCain provided a good analysis of the problems with the Iraq war, particularly the lack of planning to manage the situation once the forces had established control in Baghdad. The need to manage the exit carefully and without a set date will create a vacuum of power that will allow Iran and terrorist organizations the opportunity to create more instability and open up more regional violence that would likely bring the US back into conflicts within a short time. Best line: “You cannot have a failed strategy that can cause you to nearly lose a conflict.” in answer to the question of lessons learned from Iraq. Worst line: “that same strategy[, the surge,] will be employed in Afghanistan by this great general.” Most will probably not grab on this, but I don’t think we are yet in a position to state that the same strategy will work in Afghanistan, or if it will, it would be nice to know more about why. Clearly we need to build the force there, but we’re dealing with border crossing issues that really complicate things.
Obama did a good job of presenting his position. He has clearly dug into this area deeply and knows the terrain. The fact is, setting a date is really, in my opinion, just a political thing. The real crux of Obama’s argument is the need to get forces built up in Afghanistan. That will be hard to do without taking resources from Iraq. It seems that Obama is really trying to create the same patriotic support that Bush experienced out of 9/11 by pressing the “Kill bin Laden” line. Best line: “The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong.You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong.” Technical trivial, but good for political points. Worst line: “…that was a tactic designed to contain the damage…”. That line gave McCain an opportunity to hit back with criticism that Obama didn’t know the difference between strategy and tacktics (the word that Obama should have used was “strategy”, not “tactic”).
The core question asked was “Should we deploy more more troops to Afhganistan?” This really didn’t add a lot to the discussion that hadn’t been mostly covered during the Iraq discussion. The biggest topic in this segment was crossing the border into Pakistan. The issue is not so much crossing as it is how we interact with the Pakistan government in finding bin Laden.
Obama is anxious, it seems, to present himself as strongly anti-terrorist and ready to protect the interests of the United States. He stated that he would pursue al Qaeda into Pakistan, and if Pakistan can’t or won’t help, he’ll go in anyway. McCain jumped on this pretty hard, rightfully, because you just can’t telegraph such a plan that way. Interesting that Obama later talks about how much respect the US has lost over the years, yet would pursue this kind of approach to working with our allies. Best line: “No. 2, we’ve got to deal with a growing poppy trade that has exploded over the last several years”. This was part of his answer about what to do about Afghanistan, and probably woke up anyone that was drifting off. Most people don’t know a lot about the poppy issue, but hearing that there is one is definitely a distraction and gives the appearance that Obama knows what he’s talking about. Worst line: “Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan. Here’s what I said. And if John wants to disagree with this, he can let me know, that, 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.” Seems to me that if you are going to enter a country’s borders without the permission of the government and start shooting, that would be considered attacking that country, regardless of how noble your purpose may be. This was just a severely contratictory statement on Obama’s part. And I don’t think he realizes that.
McCain gets the opportunity to start really showing what foreign affairs is really all about. While Obama sounds like a bull in a china shop with his approach to dealing with Pakistan, McCain clearly recognizes the subtleties of diplomacy. Picking on Obama’s apparently careless approach in both planning and communicating gives him some big points here. The only problem is that this is an area that many Americans are really not familiar with, and those that are will either back McCain or pray that the State Department will protect us. Best line: “I won’t repeat the mistake that I regret enormously, and that is, after we were able to help the Afghan freedom fighters and drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, we basically washed our hands of the region. And the result over time was the Taliban, al Qaeda, and a lot of the difficulties we are facing today. So we can’t ignore those lessons of history.” Great because it points to the massively misunderstood history behind our struggles with the Taliban. Great because it is an opportunity to admit error and regrets. This is a golden opportunity for honesty and awareness. Worst line: “Now, on this issue of aiding Pakistan, if you’re going to aim a gun at somebody, George Shultz, our great secretary of state, told me once, you’d better be prepared to pull the trigger.” I just don’t understand why he used this line here. It was a little extreme to me, and didn’t seem to fit what he was actually talking about (financial support for Pakistan).
Tomorrow: Iran, Russia, Will There Be Another 9/11, and Best and Worst Overall Lines of the night.
Read the transcript of the debate.
Update: Fixing link.