McCain v. Obama: Round 1

There were no knockout blows in this debate, but McCain won on points–a surprise for people like me who expected a crushing performance from the much more silver-tongued Barack Obama. That didn’t happen tonight. Instead, Obama seemed at times to wither against McCain. “I agree with John” is the takeaway line from the debate. Obama said it over and over and over. And how could he not? On a number of issues, McCain demonstrated superior judgment and understanding and clearly outclassed Obama in terms of familiarity and knowledge regarding those issues. When someone thoroughly schools you on a matter, you have little choice but to admit it and agree with the master on his arguments about those issues.

To be sure, the debate started off in what should have been promising territory for Obama; the economy. All the polls indicate that this is Obama’s strong suit and his best issue with which to beat up on McCain as the Republican candidate. But while McCain came out for a spending freeze when asked by Jim Lehrer how he would adjust to the current fiscal situation and the financial crisis in general, Obama could not list specifically–or even generally, for that matter–what he would do in terms of changing his domestic policy programs to adapt to the times.

McCain was able to come across as a strong tax cutter, something that will be welcomed by people in all income situations who have trouble making ends meet. He properly pointed out the problems of having a high corporate tax rate in America and the fact that countries with lower corporate taxes–McCain listed Ireland as an example–would have an easier time attracting business attention. Obama sought to dismiss the corporate tax problem by bringing up the loopholes, but that argument is belied by the facts and by Obama’s own claim that corporations are leaving the country to set up shop overseas. If the corporate tax code was as filled with generous loopholes as Obama believes it is, how could he simultaneously claim that businesses need an incentive to stay in the United States?

The issue of earmarks broke in McCain’s favor, with McCain’s efforts to highlight the fact that Obama has asked for hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks. Obama couldn’t really respond to that because McCain has been sterling on the issue of earmarks. While Obama was at his best during the economics portion of the debate, McCain was able to match him stride for stride at least, and in many situations, outdistanced Obama in argument and in his discussion of the issues.

But it was when the debate switched into foreign affairs that McCain demonstrated his complete mastery of the subject matter–and repeatedly put Obama on the defensive. McCain simply knows foreign affairs better than Obama does and it showed. McCain rightfully called out Obama for stating that he would meet with Ahmadinejad of Iran, Chavez of Venezuela and Castro of Cuba without preconditions, and make no mistake, when Obama was asked about that issue initially, he pledged precisely to meet without preconditions. Don’t believe me? Then watch:

Obama’s response to this was weak, to say the least. He claimed that he didn’t necessarily mean talking to Ahmadinejad, since Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful man in Iran. It’s true that Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful man in Iran; that title goes to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But has Khamenei been any less incendiary than Ahmadinejad? You be the judge: Think stuff like this happens without Khamenei’s consent?

The name of Henry Kissinger was batted around a lot during this debate. Obama repeatedly claimed that Kissinger supported Obama’s position on negotiating with Iran. Um . . . no.

On the issue of the surge, McCain was consistently able to show that he had supported the surge and that it was yielding tremendous success in Iraq. Obama didn’t want to talk about the surge. In fact, it was clearly painful for Obama to talk about the surge. He couldn’t admit that it had succeeded, couldn’t admit that it was bringing peace and stability to Iraq and most of all, couldn’t admit that he was wrong when it came to the surge and Obama’s mistaken belief that it would not work. As with the economy, Iraq was supposed to be an issue that Obama could ride to victory. But McCain stared him down on the issue and took the upper hand. That upper hand became even more evident when the discussion spread to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia and Georgia, with McCain reminding people that he had traveled to those spots, knew the people there and knew the issues top to bottom. He demonstrated clearly that foreign policy knowledge is embedded in the very marrow of his bones. No wonder the phrase “I agree with John” was uttered by Obama over and over and over again. On foreign policy and national security issues, McCain showed how it was done and Obama could only stand and . . . well, he didn’t quite applaud, but he knew he was beat.

There was no knockout. But it was a solid win by McCain. We’ll see how this translates in the race but the McCain camp has to believe that there man did everything he wanted to do in this first confrontation.