For Barack Obama to win last Friday’s foreign policy debate, he only had to avoid losing. He almost made it.
Both Obama and McCain handled most of the economic questions well. Obama’s rhetorical skills served him best in answering moderator Jim Lehrer’s question about the financial bailout package now before the congress. Obama outlined specific points — such as the need for oversight, assurance that the taxpayers are protected and help for homeowners — that he wanted to see coming out of the negotiations this weekend.
McCain did less well, lacking specifics in his answer. One of McCain’s problems on the bailout — which has affected all the Republican negotiators — is that he’s not made clear what he would or wouldn’t support. At one point he appeared to say he’d vote for the negotiated bill, though no one knows what it will contain.
But even on the economic questions, Obama seemed uninformed, even ignorant. At one point, questioned about how he would deal with the financial crisis and future government spending, Obama said he’d go through the budget “line by line to see where we’re not spending money wisely.” But our Constitution doesn’t allow the president to do that: there’s no line item veto.
Most importantly, Obama’s answers were almost nonsensical. Lehrer demanded to know how each of the candidates would pay for the cost of the financial crisis bailout. What would they cut to pay for it?
McCain’s answer was to cut earmarks and waste in defense spending. Obama countered effectively by pointing out that earmarks amount to only about $18 billion, and the bailout may cost $750 billion. McCain wants to cut ethanol subsidies and what he considers other government waste. All of that adds up to far less than the probable cost of the bailout.
(One of McCain’s main points — that we’d end “cost plus” defense contracts — is nonsensical. Those contracts are essential to advancing technology because they enable the government to take the risk of the research and development essential to creating breakthroughs such as stealth aircraft.)
Answering Lehrer, Obama gave the liberal Alice in Wonderland answer: to pay for the proposed $750 billion bailout, he wants to spend more. Cut spending? Obama said he wanted to spend more on healthcare, alternative energy sources and rebuilding the infrastructure. McCain made the point that Obama’s plans would raise government spending by another $800 billion. Obama’s argument went in a circle, compelling the conclusion that McCain’s characterization of Obama’s program was correct.
McCain won the debate with his performance on three issues. First, the battle of the bracelets.
Asked about Iraq, McCain retold the story of the mother who asked him to wear a bracelet honoring her son who was killed in Iraq. McCain made an impassioned argument with his answer to the mother, not only agreeing to wear the bracelet but making the promise she sought: that her son would not have died in vain.
Obama was quick to point out that he wore a bracelet too, and tried to equal McCain’s passion with his promise that he would try to prevent other mothers from suffering that same loss. But Obama’s answer rang hollow after McCain’s. It was nothing more than a “me too.”
The second point — the one which won the night for McCain — occurred when McCain hammered Obama on his promise to negotiate with adversaries such as Iran without preconditions. McCain chastised Obama’s naivete, saying, “So — 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"?
At that point, Obama was clearly shaken. He backed up, rattling on and on about how his “no preconditions” promise wasn’t really about no preconditions to presidential negotiations with our enemies.
Obama claimed — incorrectly — that McCain advisor former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger endorsed the idea of direct presidential negotiations without preconditions. But Kissinger didn’t say that.
In a September 15 interview with ABC News, Kissinger explained the position he had joined in with four other former secretaries of state. Kissinger said “…that the U.S. should negotiate with Iran ‘without conditions’ and that the next President should begin such negotiations at a high level.” But this was just what McCain — not Obama — said.
Obama was thrown off his game, sputtering a bit about the difference between the “no preconditions” stance — which he has apparently abandoned — and “preparations.” McCain shot back that Obama was parsing words, and Obama could do no better than saying, “no, I’m not.”
(In a statement issued after the debate, Secretary Kissinger said, “Senator McCain is right. I would not recommend the next President of the United States engage in talks with Iran at the presidential level. My views on this issue are entirely compatible with the views of my friend Senator John McCain. We do not agree on everything, but we do agree that any negotiations with Iran must be geared to reality.”)
The third strike against Obama occurred in another moment talking about Iraq. McCain derided Obama’s insistence that the surge hadn’t worked (which Obama recently reversed) as a stubbornness that was like the stubbornness shown by the Bush administration. Again, Obama was thrown, unable to respond with any of his usual glibness.
McCain finished strongly, his passion for the military flaring when Obama talked about veterans not being able to get adequate medical care. McCain said, “I know the 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. And that’s going to be my job.”
Obama scored several points on McCain in the economic segments, tying him to the Bush spending spree which McCain voted for again and again. McCain’s points were made in the foreign policy segments, and in his attacks on Obama’s inexperience and lack of understanding of the world. Call this one a narrow victory for McCain.