Split-Decision for McCain

The first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama held little drama and still less reason for undecided voters to decide or previously-decided voters to switch. If it were a boxing match judging panel, I would give a narrow split-decision win for John McCain.

It was almost two debates: Although the planned theme of the debate was foreign policy, the event began with a discussion of the current financial and economic turmoil.

McCain missed repeated opportunities during the economic discussion to land a knock-out blow in response to misleading statements made by Obama. Each time, I thought that “McCain’s going to kill him on this.” But the counter-punch never came when Obama claimed to have been a supporter of Fannie Mae reform, that this current turmoil is primarily due to deregulation, and that our problem is “a final verdict on eight years of  failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain.”

The best McCain could do was, “I also warned about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and warned about corporate greed and excess, and CEO pay, and all that. A lot of us saw this train wreck coming.” Not compelling stuff.

When moderator Jim Lehrer asked how the proposed bailout would change their spending priorities if elected, Obama rattled of a huge list of things he wanted to spend money on, not naming one thing he would cut other than spending on the Iraq war. McCain also didn’t precisely answer the question initially, but for a more sensible reason: His focus was already on cutting spending, with particular venom aimed at earmarks.

One of McCain’s few strong points during the economic part of the debate was when he said that Obama has requested $932 million in earmarks, “a million dollars for every day that he’s been in the United States Senate.” That one stung Obama, though he had modest success in retorting that earmarks total a relatively small amount of money compared to John McCain’s proposed tax cuts.

This was another missed opportunity for McCain who could have given a much stronger defense of his tax policy, especially his proposed cut in the corporate tax rate.  He did address the issue, talking about Ireland’s 11% tax rate versus our 35% rate, but he didn’t explain well enough that the corporate tax rate is really a tax on people.

Obama repeated his claim that he would offer a tax cut to 95% of Americans. McCain should have pounced on that statement with a list of Obama’s tax-raising votes in the Senate and said it is impossible for Obama to fund his massive spending plans without confiscating far more money from Americans.  When McCain took a swing in these areas, he landed at best a glancing blow.

There were a couple moments when the men’s true colors showed — to McCain’s benefit.  When pressed by Jim Lehrer how the stress on the budget from the current economic and financial mess would change their spending priorities, McCain said he’d consider a spending freeze except for defense, taking care of veterans, and honoring entitlement program obligations.

Obama’s remarkable answer: “I want to increase early childhood education and the notion that we should freeze that when there may be, for example, this Medicare subsidy doesn’t make sense.”  Let’s get that clear: If the federal budget is in dire straits, Obama is going to work hard to increase “early childhood education” spending. Obama said he’ll have to make tough decisions, but he couldn’t name even one that he might consider.

The debate then turned to what seemed like a separate event: A discussion of foreign policy, beginning with the Iraq War.

McCain was unsteady at the beginning of the foreign policy section, but improved over the next hour.  His answer to the first question, about the lessons of Iraq, was somewhat muddled, basically saying that we’re winning and noting what might have happened if we lost. But Obama’s answer was worse, repeatedly returning to the backward-looking question of “whether we should have gone into the war in the first place.”

Another Obama talking point was that “we took our eye off the ball” and that the war in Iraq was a distraction from al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, implying that the reason we haven’t killed or captured Osama bin Laden is that we shifted our focus elsewhere.

At this point, McCain started to gain a little strength in his punches: “The next President of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not. The next President of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind.”

McCain also landed some shots on the issue of the surge: “Senator Obama said the surge could not work, said it would increase sectarian violence, said it was doomed to failure. Recently on a television program, he said it exceeded our wildest expectations. But yet, after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today.”

Obama’s attempted counter-punch was again to return to earlier years of the war: “John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. 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.” 

Obama called the surge “a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years of mismanagement of this war.” McCain’s counter-punch —  “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy” — was one of the seven times that McCain said Obama “doesn’t understand.”

One of Obama’s weakest moments came when McCain pointed out that Obama has never called a hearing of his sub-committee which has oversight of U.S. involvement with NATO and therefore is directly relevant to Afghanistan where NATO forces are fighting: “Look, I’m very proud of my vice presidential selection, Joe Biden, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as he explains, and as John well knows, the issues of Afghanistan, the issues of Iraq, critical issues like that, don’t go through my subcommittee because they’re done as a committee as a whole. But that’s Senate inside baseball.”

Obama went on to say that our soldiers and General Petraeus “have done a brilliant job”, but those compliments sounded hollow following directly on his continued insistence that the surge was a bad idea despite its success.

One of the more interesting moments of the debate came when John McCain showed a bracelet he wears given to him by the mother of a fallen soldier who asked McCain to ensure that her son didn’t die in vain.  In a moment that was both strange and pathetic, Obama pulled up a sleeve and said “I’ve got a bracelet, too,” saying that the woman who gave it to him asked him “to make sure another mother is not going through what I’m going through.”  It seemed like the most petty sort of anti-war protest by Obama, and a transparent attempt to copy one of McCain’s more successful campaign props. The difference was that McCain seemed sincere in his understanding of the meaning of the bracelet where Obama was aloof and patronizing.

When the subject turned to Iran, McCain hit his stride: “We cannot allow a second Holocaust… have no doubt that the Iranians continue on the path to the acquisition of a nuclear weapon as we speak tonight. And it is a threat not only in this region but around the world.”

After Obama’s usual pablum about needing “tougher sanction,” McCain brought up what turned into one of the most contentious parts of the evening, reminding viewers that “Senator Obama twice said in debates he would sit down with Ahmadinejad, Chavez and Raul Castro without precondition.” Obama spent a long time parsing words, trying to explain a difference between preparation and precondition.

McCain’s kept up the pressure: “So let me get this right. We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, ‘We’re going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth’ and we say, ‘No, you’re not?’ Oh, please.” It was one of the few times that McCain was openly disdainful of Obama and it was very effective.

On the subject of Russia, McCain displayed much greater mastery of the strategic issues in the area, including the role that energy plays in central Asian geopolitics and the importance of the Ukraine’s recent political developments: “And watch Ukraine. This whole thing has got a lot to do with Ukraine, Crimea, the base of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol. And the breakdown of the political process in Ukraine between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko is a very serious problem.”

This brought one of the eight times during the debate that Obama said John McCain was right. “Russia is in part resurgent and Putin is feeling powerful because of petro-dollars, as Senator McCain mentioned.”  Obama’s response on the issues of Russia and Georgia were rambling and confused, ranging from saying we use too much oil in the U.S. to saying that “winter’s coming and home heating oil” (he didn’t finish his thought).

In ending the foreign policy debate, McCain made landed some solid punches: “I’ve been involved, as I mentioned to you before, in virtually every major national security challenge we’ve faced in the last 20-some years. There are some advantages to experience, and knowledge, and judgment. And I honestly don’t believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas.”
McCain added a heartfelt statement about veterans: "I know them well. And I know that they know that I’ll take care of them. And I’ve been proud of their support and their recognition of my service to the veterans. And I love them. And I’ll take care of them. And they know that I’ll take care of them.”

In the last minute, he offered two of his most compelling lines: “Reform, prosperity, and peace, these are major challenges to the United States of America. I don’t think I need any on-the-job training. I’m ready to go at it right now.” And his last words of the evening, “I guarantee you, as President of the United States, I know how to heal the wounds of war, I know how to deal with our adversaries, and I know how to deal with our friends.”

Obama’s closing words were less memorable and seemed to stray from his usual attempts to say things which the average American can relate to: “You know, my father came from Kenya. That’s where I get my name. And in the ’60s, he wrote letter after letter to come to college here in the United States because the notion was that there was no other country on Earth where you could make it if you tried. The ideals and the values of the United States inspired the entire world. I don’t think any of us can say that our standing in the world now, the way children around the world look at the United States, is the same.”

Much like the bracelet moment, Obama seemed to respond to patriotism with defeatism, to love of country with half-hearted insults. 

Throughout the foreign policy debate, McCain got stronger and Obama got weaker, and McCain clearly won the second half of the evening.  The question is whether his victory in foreign policy, an area which most Americans don’t understand very well and don’t care about during times of severe economic stress, overcame Obama’s win in the first half of the debate about economics.

Early polling by television outlets show that the power of the debate was less than the power of people’s notions going into the debate. Viewers responding at left-leaning networks, with presumably left-leaning viewers, such as CNN and MSNBC, said Obama won.

Viewers at Fox News said McCain won. And the initial Insider Advantage poll, with slightly less built-in sample bias, reported a 42% to 41% “win” for Obama.

Speaking with people who were watching the debate around me had predictable reactions.  Activist committed Republicans thought McCain won and argued that “since it was supposed to be a foreign policy debate, it’s unfair to judge it on anything other than the foreign policy discussion.”  Another said she “was already leaning toward McCain and this reinforced that view,” that McCain appeared to be “better able to assess a situation, make a decision and stick to it… I’d feel safe with McCain as our president, but with Obama I wouldn’t.” 

The debate had both men mostly in typical form, so people saw what they expected to see. More than one person saw Obama as aloof and unemotional.  Some saw McCain as fiery (but I didn’t.) Some said McCain didn’t seem his age (but I did.) The one constant thread was that McCain lost an opportunity to win big.  “He could have slam-dunked Obama in terms of the ongoing economic situation, but he didn’t.”

I’m sure his advisors will tell him that he has to be much more aggressive on economic issues in the future. It’s what voters care most about and it’s the area where the public doesn’t already give him the advantage. Doing well in the area where he’s expected to do well will not win the swing voters McCain needs to be our next president.  Last night’s debate contained little to change people’s pre-existing notions.

All in all, a modest split decision victory for John McCain, but that has to be a disappointment to his campaign which probably expected, as many of us did, McCain to outperform Obama in the absence of teleprompters.  As someone behind in the polls, a tie or slight win won’t get the job done for McCain.