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The Debates: Round One to McCain

September 29, 2008

By Phil Perkins

With the current financial crisis casting a large shadow on Friday night, there were inevitable questions on its impact although the first presidential debate was to be concentrated on foreign affairs and national security issues. It was in the latter realm that John McCain shone and put distance between himself and the inexperienced Obama.

Fox News' Brit Hume used the term "spirited" to describe the debate in its aftermath, and that was apt. Some grudging credit must go to moderator Jim Lehrer of the left-leaning Public Broadcasting System, who kept his political bias to a minimum, asked relevant, open-ended questions, challenged both candidates at times, and mostly stepped out of the way and let them talk.

As a result, we had probably the most revealing and articulate debate on real issues since the Cheney-Lieberman debate back in 2000. Obama had clearly boned up on the major foreign policy issues of the day, and he committed no major gaffes of the "Poland is free" genre. However, this doesn't mean that his remarks and responses were mistake-free by any means. He did wrongly state that "there was no al Queda before we went to Iraq." His claim that al Queda is stronger now than it was then is also dubious. And his bullying remarks about going into Pakistan with or without their blessing to get bin Laden or other terrorists sounded contrived and McCain gained some points by calling him out on this issue.

McCain's responses to the foreign policy questions were crisper, more confident, and more factual in almost every instance than were Obama's. Unlike Obama's vague references to building up troop strengths in Afghanistan, McCain had real numbers at his command. McCain did a stellar job of hammering Obama on the latter's willingness to meet with thug leaders like Ahmedinejad and Chavez with no pre-conditions, and Obama's testy, lawyer-like response showed that McCain scored in this area. McCain increased his credibility by calling for spending cuts across the board including defense, while at the same time advocating a strong military. He rightly pointed out that the Pentagon still uses too many cost-plus contracts and cited one naval system whose unit cost went from $140 million to over $400 million.

Only in the first part of the debate on the financial crisis did McCain not have as sure a footing. He refused to point out the Democrats' culpability in the recent mortgage-related collapses and was vague and tepid in showing any support for the valiant House Republicans who have pushed back on a government (read: taxpayer) bailout of $700 billion. He also failed to criticize Obama for the latter's puffed up claims of being the first to identify the problems ahead, along with his abysmal lack of leadership and partisanship at a key meeting of the president and Congressional leaders late last week. Perhaps McCain's own ambivalence about whether to support the bailout or the courageous dissenters in his own party contributed to his reticence.

McCain certainly left a few aces unplayed, such as not calling out Obama on the latter's "agonizing" decision not to support the invasion of Iraq as a member of the Illinois legislature back in 2002. McCain did zing Obama on some other things but it would have been a sure winner to point out that Obama had no real skin in the game back then. Who cared what an Illinois state senator, even a so-called rising star, might have thought?

On the other hand, McCain may have made too much of $18 billion in earmarks and Obama's advocacy of $900-plus million for his home state, while not hitting Obama hard enough on his plans to massively increase taxes and spending. McCain needs to have better support for his tax plans in future debates plus better attacks on Obama's plan-especially the bogus 95 percent figure Obama keeps trotting out as the percentage of Americans that will supposedly benefit from his tax proposals.

Hopefully the remaining debates will continue in this vein, with the moderators putting their political views aside, McCain doing his best to stay on the offensive, and Obama's veneer cracking at some point.

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