McCain – Obama Debate 1: Foreign Policy

Forty minutes into the first presidential debate of the 2008 general election season, which was supposed to be about foreign policy, we have had precisely no discussion of foreign policy thanks to moderator Jim Lehrer’s asking the same three domestic policy questions repeatedly.   Granting that there’s an emergency in the financial sector, most of the questions are only tangentially related to that issue.  Are we going to add an hour of discussion on foreign policy to the economic debate night?

Thus far, neither candidate has been other than average.   McCain choice of ties was much bolder and he’s been a bit more animated and good humored than expected while Obama has been somewhat more subdued in both manner and attire.  Thus far, no gaffes, gotchas, or notable sound bytes.

Lehrer finally asked a foreign policy question — about the lessons of Iraq — at the 42 minute mark.   Both reiterated their talking points nicely in the opener.  McCain perhaps scores a point for noting that the next president won’t be tasked with deciding whether to go to war in Iraq but rather how to deal with it.  McCain tried and failed to score cheap points on Obama’s not having taken junkets to Iraq or Afghanistan and Obama fought back, also rather dubiously, charging that McCain said the war would be easy.  My guess is that neither made much hay with this one.

More troops for Afghanistan was the next issue.  Both, of course, support it. Obama makes the cheap point that Afghanistan was the source of 9/11, even though the current battle has little to do with it.  He makes the far better point, though, that the Iraq War makes it impossible to bring substantially more troops to bear in Afghanistan.  Additionally, he’s right that the poppy problem and Pakistan are vital to winning there.  McCain begins noting that leaving Afghanistan after we helped them defeat the Soviets.  He’s also right that Pakistan is complicated and that cutting off aid and overt operations there will cause a whole array of problems in their own right.

Obama got in a mild zinger that calls for “prudence” coming from a man who sings about bombing Iran “may not be credible.”  McCain responds well by noting that he’d opposed the Lebanon mission in 1983 and by pointing out that he’s got a long record of being involved in these tough choices.

Weird moment of the night:  McCain recounts, as he has previously, the story about a bracelet he wears of a young soldier killed in combat.  Obama says, “I have a bracelet, too!” and then stumbles over the name and has to pull up his sleeve to read it.   I stumble over names regularly and don’t think it’s a big deal but it was a bit uncomfortable.

Threat from Iran? McCain says they pose “an existential threat to the state of Israel” and a threat to the region.  (Which country is he running for president of again?)   Then, he immediately brings up the League of Democracies idea and says that this would be a vehicle for affecting Iranian behavior.  Obama blames the  rise of Iran on the war in Iraq, which is rather bizarre.  But he says “we can not tolerate a nuclear Iraq — it would be a game changer.”  He thinks we need Russia and China, not just democracies, to solve this, along with direct diplomacy.   He’s right there.

McCain feigns anger over Obama’s previous statements that he’d talk with Ahmadinijad and other thugs “without precondition” and notes that Reagan and Nixon made their big advances with the Soviets and Red Chinese, respectively, after pre-negotiations by staff.   Obama retorts that Ahmadinijad isn’t the most powerful guy in Iran and thus perhaps not the guy to talk to.

Russia:  Nothing new here.  Obama has recovered from his initial stumbling on this issue when the Russians first invaded and is now up on the Foreign Policy Establishment talking points.  He’s even talking about MAP for Ukraine and Georgia, a topic that’s rather inside baseball for the average viewer.  McCain notes the power of Russia’s “energy weapon.”   Whereas Obama emphasized a consensus view with the Alliance, McCain emphasized Russia’s bad behavior and American resolve.

Chances of Another 9/11:   McCain:  Less than it was the day after.   He takes credit for the 9/11 Commission because he and Joe Lieberman were fighting for it while others fought it.   Obama:  We’re spending too much on missile defense and not enough to deter suitcase nukes and proliferation, generally.  And we need to focus on al Qaeda in Pakistan  and Afghanistan.   (Aren’t we doing that now?)

How They Did:   Both guys did what they had to do tonight.   McCain was crisp and serious, bolstering  his pre-existing reputation for having command of foreign policy issues and being more experienced.   He subtly and not-so-subtly reminded us every chance he could that he’s been involved in these policies for a long time and isn’t a rookie. He didn’t get angry or flustered and he was close enough to Obama’s equal as a speaker that he didn’t lose ground.   I doubt he gained any, either. For his part, Obama was clearly prepared and has obviously learned the issues over the course of the campaign.  To the extent that people otherwise predisposed to him were worried about his readiness in this milieu, they’re likely more comfortable after the debate.

Impact on the Race:  I’m not the target audience here, obviously, since I follow these issues for a living.  My sense here is that the night was essentially a tie and that that’s to Obama’s benefit.  He’s already leading the race and it’s unlikely that McCain made up any ground.  Moreover, since foreign policy is generally considered Obama’s weakness, not getting blown out here is probably a win.

As an aside, I’m watching the debate on CNNHD.  (I’ll likely switch to Fox for the after action, because I prefer their analysts, but I prefer HD to standard def.)  They’ve got Analyst Scorecards from Paul Begalla, Bill Bennett, Gloria Borger, Donna Brazile, Alex Castellanos, and John King.   Their numbers vary wildly.

Feel free to weigh in below.  I may round up other blogger reax in a separate post in the morning.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2010, US Politics, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    McCain still using the tired line about “Bin Laden says Iraq is the central front”. Does he really think Bin Laden is laying his real cards on the table? Sucker…

  2. anjin-san says:

    Did Nixon get preconditions from China? Sure Kissenger went there first, but did he get them to give anything up in order to get Nixon to go?

  3. Michael says:

    I have a 3 year old and a 4 year old, that very often fight to be heard above the other. I was oddly reminded of them while watching this.

  4. anjin-san says:

    I see Biden. Where is Palin? Does McCain have her locked in a basement?

  5. Brian K says:

    I have a 3 year old and a 4 year old, that very often fight to be heard above the other. I was oddly reminded of them while watching this.

    I second.

  6. Michael says:

    I see Biden. Where is Palin? Does McCain have her locked in a basement?

    She’s either shooting rape victims from an airplane she bought on ebay, or single handedly saving Wall Street from the Russians. Either way, I guarantee you that Sarah Palin did not blink!

  7. Brian K says:

    I’m watching the debate on CNNHD

    Like football, the HD really pays off here. Was that tomato sauce on his shirt? Oooh, that could cost him Iowa.

  8. anjin-san says:

    Its entirely possible that Palin is on border duty tonight in Alaska, defending our nation, watching out for emboldened Russkies…

  9. Allie says:

    Did anyone else notice, and was bothered by the fact, that McCain never looked Obama in the eye, even when he was supposed to be responding to him?

  10. JKB says:

    Didn’t see the debate as a tie.

    Obama’s stumbling on the name on his bracelet killed any effect it was to have and showed the bracelet as a prop. McCain knew the mother’s name as well as the soldier’s name.

    Obama said “McCain is right” ten times or was it 12.

    McCain slammed Obama on the meeting Iran without conditions showing Obama’s naivete. Obama didn’t seem to get that meeting with the American President legitimizes the regime and should never be done without something to show for it.

  11. od says:

    I’d call it a tie – its the kind of debate where everyone will think their candidate won, and won’t help the undecided make a decision … most folks probably wouldn’t have watched more than a few minutes of it anyway before switching to something more interesting.

  12. Michael says:

    Did anyone else notice, and was bothered by the fact, that McCain never looked Obama in the eye, even when he was supposed to be responding to him?

    Hell, I could barely even look at the TV. I’m an Obama supporter, but I was hoping for a better performance than that. Neither one of these guys are really good at debating.

  13. anjin-san says:

    McCain said he saved the taxpayers 6.8 billion. Heck, that will cover his wife’s wardrobe for a first term easy…

  14. PJens says:

    What struck me was how many times Sen. Obama said (something like): “Sen. McCain is right…” It was frequent. I am sure an accurate count will follow.

  15. Michael says:

    What struck me was how many times Sen. Obama said (something like): “Sen. McCain is right…” It was frequent. I am sure an accurate count will follow.

    He always seemed to hedge those with a “but…”. Basically saying “He’s right about the facts, but draws the wrong conclusions”, or “He’s right about what we need to do, but his proposal won’t do it”. So he wasn’t exactly agreeing with him every time he said that.

  16. anjin-san says:

    What struck me was how many times Sen. Obama said (something like): “Sen. McCain is right…” It was frequent.

    Obama is choosing his battles, not just arguing for arguments sake based on talking points. He did the same thing to Hillary. Did you note how that worked out?

  17. Fence says:

    I thought both showed they are plenty capable of being President. Can anyone imagine Palin engaged in some of the same conversations?

    I thought McCain landed the best punch of the debate, with the continuous theme that Obama didn’t “understand” X or Y because of his inexperience. Obviously Obama should have known this was coming, so it’s odd he didn’t have a ready snap answer. Perhaps a “John, we all know you understand a lot about the 20th century, but let’s talk about understanding the 21st.” On the other hand, maybe McCain’s meme didn’t really work because it looked very much like Obama did understand. Maybe that is actually the story of the night.

    As someone who grew up in the Deep South, it was really striking that I never even heard one person on TV talk about how incredible it is that in Oxford, Mississippi, well within the lifetimes of, let’s say, Trent Lott’s Ole Miss class of 1963, a black man stood tall on the national debate stage as the front runner for President.

  18. I was in my car the whole time listening to XM 150 (the unedited comedy channel) so I think I won.

  19. Brett says:

    On foreign policy, Obama really let McCain dictate most of the ground upon which they debated, particularly in terms of Iraq (which turned into a Duel of Re-Phrased Talking Points) and Russia (where Obama more or less just advocated a milquetoast version of the standard plan advocated that McCain advocates with Extra Aggression Sauce.

    McCain slammed Obama on the meeting Iran without conditions showing Obama’s naivete. Obama didn’t seem to get that meeting with the American President legitimizes the regime and should never be done without something to show for it.

    Who cares? The regime already has effective legitimacy anyways because most of the other powerful nations and the UN have established diplomatic relations with them – the point of the negotiations is so that we have a direct channel with which to talk to them (and also so that we have an embassy from which to recruit spies in Iran). It’s just another example of no administration wanting to rock the boat and pull the fingers out of its ears.

  20. rodney dill says:

    The debated provided something for everyone — McCain has a clear grasp of foreign policy, and Obama has hope and change… and a bracelet… too.

  21. Dave Schuler says:

    I agree with your analysis and conclusions, James, and from what I’m seeing around the ‘sphere reactions seem to be largely on a where you stand is where you sit basis.

  22. manisthemeasure says:

    The two went to Ole Miss yesterday for two different reasons. Obama, it appeared, went to propose policy changes he believed would improve the current situation, over all. McCain, on the other hand, seemed angered by the fact that he had to debate Obama. His mission last night did not seem to be to debate Obama but to remind the American people, and the world, that Obama was still in diapers when he, McCain, was first elected to the Senate. The way he saw it, He had done it all, met all these people, won wars, solved economic problems and had all the answers. Obama, on the contrary, was naive and just didn’t know anything. Unfortunately for him, the majority of those who saw the debate don’t share that opinion.

    McCain came across as disrespectful and contemptuous, even supercilious most of the time. It was as if he didn’t want to be there,..well, he did express that..but it seemed to be more because of who his opponent was. Even his pen was older than Obama!

    This is the same McCain who spent the whole summer luring Obama to town hall meetings. He finally gets Obama on the same stage with him and he spent the whole evening talking about Obama and not to him.

  23. […] largely conforms to my expectations, as expressed in my post-debate instant analysis.  Neither candidate committed any gaffes and there were no particularly memorable sound bytes, so […]