Comments on the first presidential debate

The first presidential debate of this election occurred yesterday.  It was a good format in the sense that it gave the candidates time to explain their positions with more than mere soundbytes and allowed the candidates to address each other directly.

The debate opened on the topic of the economic recovery plan.  I´m glad both candidates supported oversight.

The next topic in the debate was the fundamental differences between how the candidates would approach the financial crisis.  McCain said he would reduce spending in Washington by vetoing earmarks and pork-barrel spending.  He mentioned how the government spent $3 million to study bear DNA.  However, he voted for the bill that made those appropriations.  The term ¨earmark¨ has negative connotations but we must remember that one man´s earmark is another man´s vital program.  We are better served talking about specific programs that the candidates support and oppose.  For example, during the debate McCain said he would veto all spending bills.  At the same time McCain supports Israel.  Aid to Israel is an earmark.  I don´t think McCain would actually withdraw funding from Israel so he´s obviously exaggerating his opposition to earmarks.  Furthermore, spending on earmarks is down, not up as McCain claimed.  Obama came across as more realistic on earmarks when he said he would cut unwise spending and that earmark reform would not get the middle class back on track.

During what was supposed to be a discussion of what programs would have to be cut due to the financial crisis some interesting side notes came up.  First, McCain mentioned he killed a contract between the DOD and Boeing.  ¨But the contract isn’t exactly ´fixed´ yet. In fact, questions have been raised about the role McCain has played in helping a Boeing rival secure the new contract.¨  Second, McCain lied about Obama´s stance on nuclear power.  Third, commenting on Obama´s health care plan, McCain said, ¨I want the families to make decisions between themselves and their doctors. Not the federal government.¨  How would McCain propose getting insurance companies out of the decision-making process?  In other words, how do we ensure that every American, regardless of income, gets the best health care?  Fourth, McCain claimed to have opposed torture but he did not vote against a ban on water-boarding.

The debate then moved on to the Iraq War.  Obama is certainly correct that the first issue is whether we should have invaded Iraq to begin with.  The Iraq War did not meet the criteria of a just war so Obama has the edge on that count.  However, it is disappointing that in listing the ills caused by the invasion Obama showed no concern for innocent Iraqis.  McCain tried to weasle out of this issue by saying, ¨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.¨  But the next president may have to decide when to use military force in another situation.  If McCain made a poor decision in starting a war with Iraq then we are justified in being skeptical about whether he will make a sound judgment when the country faces a similar decision.

But McCain is correct to focus on how we will end the war in Iraq.  It doesn´t matter that Obama did not want to go into Iraq.  We´re there and if Obama becomes president he will have to deal with it.  The ¨experts¨ appear to disagree on exactly how to exit Iraq and I am in no better position to know what will work.  The uncertainty on this matter needs to be taken into account.  Any proposed plan has to consider the need to change tactics mid-stream.  For example, if Obama were to start withdrawing troops and we noticed things in Iraq spiraling downwards then Obama would have to consider reversing the withdrawal.  At least Obama concedes that the surge worked better than he thought it would.  McCain sounds foolish attacking Obama about being wrong about the surge since practically every politician, including McCain, has been wrong about some matter concerning the Iraq War.  Everyone should show humility on this issue.

The next issue centered around Afghanistan and Pakistan.  First, Obama seemed to take a simplistic view of democracy in Pakistan.  Not just any democracy will do.  It has to be a democracy that protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority and that plays nice with other countries.  The U.S. needs to champion this specific kind of democracy, not just a state where the majority rules.  Second, the fact that both candidates had bracelets and accmpanying anecdotes shows how shallow our political discourse is.  The fact that a military family endorses you does not mean the whole military endorses you nor does it mean the other candidate does not ¨support the troops.¨  Third, McCain mentioned that he traveled to Afghanistan and that Obama had not as if this automatically makes him more knowledgeable about the situation.  Spending a few days being escorted around the country does not make you an expert.  Ultimately, the decisions in Afghanistan will be made on facts that neither candidate witnessed with his own eyes.  Who traveled where is not an indicator of who will make better decisions.

Both candidates recognized a threat from an Iran with nuclear weapons but neither had great plans for what to do about it.  What will they do if sanctions fail?

The debate then devolved into whether the U.S. president should meet other leaders without preconditions.  There may be reasons not to meet with a given leader without preconditions, but McCain could not provide a logical reason to rule out all such meetings.  McCain´s first claim is that it legitimates the actions of the other leader and gives him credence in the world arena.  This is an absurd conclusion to draw.  Suppose that Obama met with Ahmadinejad and the meeting was mainly Obama listing his disagreements with Iran´s leader.  Under such a scenario Obama would not have endorsed Ahmadinejad´s views in any way.  It may be a fruitless meeting, but not a harmful meeting.  McCain´s second claim is that such a meeting provides a propaganda platform.  But if a breakthrough occurs at such a meeting is it not a propaganda platform for us as well?  And if no agreement is reached how much propaganda can you squeeze out of it?  In the end McCain made a mountain out of a mole hill.

When the debate came to the topic of Russia, McCain committed a gaffe by attacking Obama for saying both Russia and Georgia should show restraint.  Was McCain hoping for a blood bath or was he just desperate to attack Obama even when they are in agreement?  Obama made it clear that he condemned Russia´s aggression yet McCain still claimed Obama did not recognize that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia.

The debate closed on whether another 9/11-style attack could hit the continental U.S.  Neither candidate could summon the courage to tell the American people that such an attack is a very real possibility.  Obama also focuses too much on al Qaeda as if they are the only terrorists who want to attack the U.S.  Jihadists throughout the Islamic world want to attack the West.

I came into the debate supporting Obama and I left the debate supporting Obama.  Generally speaking, Obama characterized McCain´s viewpoints more accurately than McCain characterized Obama´s viewpoints.  This shows that he will engage the actual issues and not straw man arguments.  McCain´s major advantage over Obama is on military tactics and strategy.  However, Obama´s weakness in this arena can be made up for by relying on the opinon of military experts.

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