OXFORD, Miss.—In their first head-to-head debate, John McCain sought to portray Barack Obama, again and again, as dangerously inexperienced and naïve about the real world while Obama tried to argue that he had better judgment and understanding of the challenges facing America in the 21st century.
Throughout the debate here at Ole Miss University in Mississippi, Obama was more willing to address himself directly to McCain, but McCain often talked over Obama’s objections, which on the television sounded like muttering. McCain, time after time, on the Middle East and on the former Soviet states, sought to make the case for his credibility by saying that he had actually gone to the global hot spots while Obama had not. He concluded by evoking his time as a prisoner of war.
Reacting to McCain, Obama was at times cautious and almost deferential: At one point when McCain spoke of a bracelet a military mother gave him, Obama said he had been given a bracelet, too. But for the most part the Illinois senator based his arguments on what he suggested was the evidence, borne out in Bush’s administration, that McCain’s proposed policies didn’t work.
“Senator Obama still doesn’t quite understand, he doesn’t get it,” said McCain, adding, “I have the ability and the knowledge and the background to make the right judgments to keep this country safe and secure.”
“I don’t need any on-the-job training.”
Obama seemed unwilling to sacrifice his presidential poise by pressing or attacking McCain too much, and often conceded that he agreed with his opponent’s observations and analysis.
The debate, originally scheduled to focus on foreign policy, immediately became a discussion about the economic crisis and the candidate’s positions on the bailout, taxes and earmarks.
Lehrer’s first question was about the candidates’ positions on “the economic recovery plan.”
Obama went first. He gave a version of his current stump speech, calling the situation “a defining moment in our history” and the “worst financial crisis since the great depression.” Obama, who has been criticized for failing to communicate his empathy with struggling Americans, said, “Those of you on Main Street have been struggling for a while.” He called for oversight over this bailout process, giving taxpayers recourse to get their money back, including gains, measures to prevent corporate executives from golden parachutes, and to help homeowners.
McCain chose instead to stress his emphasis on bipartisanship, opening with a “sad” note about Ted Kennedy, a “lion” of the Senate readmission into the hospital. “Yes I went back to Washington,” said McCain, who discussed, somewhat unclearly, how he was working to come up with an agreement.
Lehrer urged them to engage one another, and to specifically say where they stood on the plan.
“We have 5 minutes yet and we can negotiate a plan,” said Lehrer.
Obama deflected, choosing instead to talk about “how did we get into this situation in the first place” and listed what he characterized as his efforts in trying to prevent the housing meltdown.
Lehrer pressed McCain on where he stood on the Treasury’s plan and if he would support it.
“Sure, but,” began McCain, who went on to talk about his own efforts to prevent the crisis and complain about the loss of accountability in Washington.
“We’ve got to start holding people accountable,” he said.
Obama agreed on the lack of accountability, but said “we need it not just when there is a crisis.”
The two candidates, used to the traditional debate forum, addressed the moderator or the television camera.
“Say it to him,” Lehrer implored Obama when the Illinois senator brought up McCain’s much-discussed remarks that the fundamentals of the economy are strong.
Obama turned to McCain, “Uh, John,” he said. “Ten days ago you said the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”
“Were you afraid I couldn’t hear him?” McCain said to laughter.
McCain sought again to insinuate that the fundamentals he spoke of were the American workers, and to move the discussion onto spending. The two candidates then went back and forth over their tax plans, with Obama casting McCain as a friend of the corporate interests who would continue the policies of George Bush, and McCain characterizing Obama as a wild spender without a real history of fighting earmarks.
The debate then shifted to foreign policy, and it quickly grew heated over the war in Iraq.
Obama sought to frame the subject as a question of judgment that depended on the decision to go into Iraq in the first place. McCain tried to move the focus onto the so-called “surge” of troops in Iraq, which he said that Obama was too stubborn to accept as successful.
The two ended up debating the semantics of what constituted tactics and what constituted strategy, the legislative nuances that led them both to oppose funding the troops in different votes on withdrawal timelines. The contrast between the two became clearer and more relevant to the current challenges when the focus moved to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama criticized all the government aid that went to Pakistan without appreciable results.
McCain responded, “I’m not prepared to cut off aid to Pakistan,” he said, accusing Obama of wanting to “launch military strikes into Pakistan.”
“You don’t do that,” he said. “You don’t say that out loud.”
He said the strategy in Afghanistan needed to be another surge.
“It’s got to be a new strategy, the same strategy,” he said, that succeeded “in Iraq.”
Obama clarified that what he wanted to do in Pakistan was take military action against Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden even if the Pakistani government refused. And to rebuke McCain’s suggestion that he imperiled national security by speaking about such an attack, he said McCain lacked credibility to talk about temperament because “you threatened the extinction of North Korea,” he said, “and sang songs about bombing Iran.”
Both candidates said a nuclear Iran was intolerable, both for American national security and because it endangered the very existence of Israel. Obama himself reintroduced the idea that he would pursue “direct, tough” diplomacy with America’s enemies. McCain jumped on it, saying Obama would meet the nation’s mortal enemies without “preconditions.” Obama, as he has done throughout the election, and it seems, to his benefit, embraced the distinction, and pointed out that the Bush administration had started directly engaging Iran with diplomacy.
Obama then pointed out that McCain recently said he wouldn’t meet with Spain.
“Spain!” Obama repeated for emphasis. “If we can’t meet with our friend I don’t know how we are going to lead.”
Obama sought to project a tough but restrained position on Russia.
“We also can’t return to a cold war posture with Russia,” he said.
McCain again used the issue to paint Obama as green on foreign policy.
“A little bit of naïveté there,” said McCain, adding that the United States needed to flex its muscles more. “I think the Russians ought to understand that we the United States, we will support the inclusion of Georgia and the Ukraine” into NATO.
He said that Russia was in violation of its ceasefire, and demonstrated his familiarity with the region by discussing the politics over oil pipelines and breakaway tendencies in the region.
They ended where they began on foreign policy, arguing over the war in Iraq, with McCain going so far to argue that Obama’s opposition to the surge evoked George Bush.
“We’ve seen sign of this before, in this administration, to cling to the belief that somehow the surge has not succeeded.”