The first presidential debate mirrored the campaign itself. Barack Obama came across as smooth and reassuring, while John McCain was feisty and knowledgeable.
The voters thus must decide whether style or substance is more crucial this election year. And they must choose the latter in these trying times.
It was being said beforehand that Obama needed to hold his own in order to ‘win’, and to the average viewer he seemed well informed. But looking deeper, Obama was obtuse, formulaic and melodramatic. He said that the United States had “coddled Musharraf” – the authoritarian leader of Pakistan for the last 9 years – when this was just another of the Democrats’ stock denouncements of tough US allies when the alternatives are grim and grimmer.
Obama came across as cool. Perhaps a little too cool. He consistently referred to Senator McCain as “John”, which is a tactic of disrespect that he uses every day on the campaign trail. At the same time, he admitted that “I agree” with McCain eight times, while McCain said that Obama did not understand, or was naïve, seven times which, combined, were a huge plus for McCain, and a quiet victory for the Arizona senator.
In the opening economic segment, Obama played accusatory class warfare heavily, talking about “CEO bank accounts and golden parachutes” while claiming that his own middle class tax cuts would help families and the economy. But Bill Clinton said he would cut middle class taxes in 1992 and then reneged. Meanwhile McCain proposed a middle class tax cut in increasing the child tax credit, and said he would impose a spending freeze, both of which are in keeping with his history of tax and spending restraint.
McCain also restated what supply-siders have always known and that is that business taxes need to be reduced in order to create and maintain jobs. That is anathema to Obama/leftist economic dogma, however. The United States has the second highest corporate tax rates in the world after Japan, and McCain is right when he says that they must be reduced to generate capital flows and increase economic activity.
McCain missed one big opportunity when he failed to mention that Obama will seek to raise Social Security taxes on every single paycheck issued in America, which is the biggest single hit that Middle America will take under a Democrat administration and would cancel out any tax cut that Obama offered, which ultimately he will not.
Obama made references to ending dependence on Middle Eastern oil in 10 years. He said that we could do it relying heavily on wind and solar energy, although rational analyses say it is not anywhere near possible unless we heavily invest in our own nuclear and petroleum resources, which Obama said he favors.
But again, Democrat party patrons in the environmental movement simply will block offshore drilling and nuclear power with lawsuits, letting Obama off the hook. Thus Obama was being dishonest. With the failure of ethanol, sources like wind and solar power are not far behind and Obama’s energy idealism, which sounds optimistic, is ultimately doomed to fail.
Obama made the usual case against the oil companies, claiming that McCain supported “an additional $4 billion in tax breaks” which simply is a Democrat way of saying McCain would not agree to a $4 billion tax increase on oil companies – and much, much more – that Democrats always favor.
Obama made many of the usual under-the-radar suggestions for spending more money, referring to the standard Democrat talking point of “investing in education” which was simply another wink and nod to the teacher unions to funnel more billions their way. In fact, when talking about workers, Obama curiously mentioned “the nurse, the teacher and the police officer”, which are three fields that overwhelmingly are comprised of unionized Democrats, and do not represent the average worker in America. Again, a coded reference.
McCain was strong and spry. When George Bush debated Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, most Republicans were worried about a gaffe. Ronald Reagan’s mediocre first debate performance in 1984 greatly unnerved the GOP. That was not the case with McCain who was knowledgeable, strong in voice, aggressive when he needed to be, and did not stumble once. Neither did Obama stumble or gaffe, although he seemed miffed at several points at which he tried to interrupt McCain, and talked over him.
Again, the major difference was in substance over style.
Obama made his usual objections to the war in Iraq, even claiming that he somehow would have seen through the bad intelligence at the heart of the war. McCain hammered him back for his “stubbornness” in opposing the Iraq troop surge even after it had succeeded.
Since Obama has such a short track record, it was hard for McCain to pin him down on other foreign policy positions, while McCain talked like a seasoned hand, pointing out his opposition to Reagan’s deployment of the Marines in Lebanon, who subsequently were killed in a 1983 terrorist attack on their barracks; and his own involvement in a host of historical events from the Balkans to Somalia. He gave a reassuring portrait of himself not as the doddering old man that Democrats wish, but as a strikingly self-assured and confident elder statesman.
McCain hit Obama hard on his statement of moral equivalence on the Russian invasion of Georgia, when Obama had said that both sides should stand down when clearly one side had invaded (Russia) and the other was the victim (Georgia). This was a good point by McCain and is a telling distinction in outlook between thinking Republicans and effete, intellectual Democrats.
Said McCain of Russia’s Putin, in satirical reference to President Bush’s analysis: “I looked into Putin’s eyes, and saw a K, a G and a B.” That truly is the heart of a realist. Obama ducked McCain’s accusations on his statement that he would meet with any foreign leader without preconditions, claiming that “Ahmedinejad is not the most powerful man in Iran” which it totally beside the point and a real feint.
“This is dangerous, it is just naive. It is dangerous,” McCain said boldly of Obama’s position on those meetings, a striking assertion intended to undermine Obama on foreign policy.
Obama tried to make the case on terrorism, that we are not safe because our ports and transit systems have not been fully secured. McCain should have stood up for Bush’s policies on that point, because Obama’s Democrats have opposed every one of Bush’s tough tactics and terrorist wiretap efforts that are much more likely to yield a good result than the much more expensive route of inspecting every cargo container coming into the country.
McCain was adamant about preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and was knowledgeable about the workings of our partnership with Pakistan, while Obama seemed more ethereal and less focused on distinct policies and more interested in generalizing on issues like the fact that bin Laden is still free.
Senator McCain made an engaging reference to “Republicans and Democrats together sitting down” to work on the nation’s problems, which McCain is known for, and a very sweet reference to veterans about whom he said, “I love them and I’ll take care of them.”
That was a genuine moment that changed the tone of the debate momentarily.
Both candidates mentioned slain soldiers for whom they wore bracelets, and used those soldiers’ names to further the cause of fighting on to victory in Iraq (McCain) and not allowing any more soldiers to die (Obama).
In the end, McCain was a much stronger debater. He was more knowledgeable in his arguments, while Obama sounded more like one of his speeches… full of rhetoric but, as McCain said repeatedly, “naïve” and “wrong”. This is really strong stuff. While most commentators agreed that there were no significant sound bites that represented a knockout punch or a ‘gotcha’ moment, McCain’s repeated shots at Obama’s naivete, and his striking command of the issues showed who really won the first debate hands down.
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