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.