Though the first presidential debate was supposed to cover national security and world affairs, it began with a series of questions about the ongoing financial crisis in the United States, and the responses of Democratic Senator Barack Obama and Republican Senator John McCain set the tenor for the rest of the often-tense 90-minute face-off.
Both men hit upon themes they would repeat over the course of the debate — Obama's attempts to tie McCain to the failed policies of the Bush administration and McCain's repeated assertions that Obama's views on world affairs were naive at best, uninformed at worst. And though he tried repeatedly at the outset of the debate to get the men to look at each other during the five-minute open segments of the program, moderator Jim Lehrer struggled to get McCain and Obama to engage each other as they tackled the issues.
"It's been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who supported this orgy of spending," Obama said, finally looking at McCain several minutes into the program. McCain, as he would often do during the debate, declined to make eye contact with his opponent, instead looking down at his lectern or in the opposite direction. "You voted for almost all of his budgets. To stand here and say that after eight years you're going to lead on controlling spending and balancing our tax cuts for middle-class families ... it's kind of hard to swallow."
Despite the turmoil of the past week — during which McCain proposed postponing the debate and put his campaign on hold to go to Washington to deal with the fiscal crisis — the tenor of the debate was relatively calm, if testy at points, with neither man appearing to strike a decisive blow or committing a serious gaffe.
Asked how they stood on the $700 billion financial-recovery plan that was being hashed out in Washington, Obama said that swift action was needed to deal with it and said his hope was that any plan would contain oversight, assurances that taxpayers who are putting their money at risk would get it back if the market returned, CEOs of failed companies were not getting "golden parachutes," and homeowners were helped to avoid foreclosure.
McCain said he was heartened to see Democrats and Republicans working together on the plan, adding, "We're talking about failures on Main Street and people who would lose their jobs and their credit and their homes if we don't fix the greatest fiscal crisis in our time. ... This isn't the beginning of the end of this crisis — this is the end of the beginning." McCain then repeatedly lashed Obama for requesting more than $900 million in earmarks and pork-barrel spending, saying, "That kind of thing is not the way to rein in runaway spending in Washington, D.C." Asked several times which parts of their economic priorities they would abandon given the expected cuts that would follow the passage of the expected $700 billion bailout, neither man would definitively commit to what programs they would cut, despite Lehrer's urging.
The economic back-and-forth set the stage for the real red meat of the debate: the foreign-policy segment, during which McCain returned often to his long history of experience in dealing with foreign powers and conflicts overseas.
Saying it is well-known that he has not been voted "Miss Congeniality in the Senate," McCain described how he was opposed to a number of Bush administration policies — from the torture of prisoners to the way the war in Iraq was initially executed, saying that he is known as a maverick in the Senate, in the same way his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, is known as a maverick in her state.
Obama, however, repeated his stump line that McCain has voted with the Bush White House more than 90 percent of the time and said the fundamental difference between him and his opponent on the question of the war in Iraq is that he would have questioned whether the United States should have gone to war at all. "We took our eye off the ball," Obama said, referring to the failure to completely root out the Taliban in Afghanistan and kill leader Osama bin Laden after the attacks of September 11.
"The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue of whether we went into Iraq or not," McCain said. "The next president of the United States is going to have to decide when we leave and what we leave behind." As he would often do during the second half of the debate, McCain said his opponent didn't understand the underlying issue, saying Obama refused to acknowledge that the surge in Iraq was working and that the U.S. was winning in Iraq.
"You said you knew where the weapons of mass destruction were," Obama said to McCain. "You were wrong."
Seeking to set himself apart from his opponent, McCain also frequently referred to his travels abroad and relationships with foreign leaders, saying he better understood the situation in Afghanistan because he's been to the region. "I have a record of being involved in these national-security issues," McCain said.
"Over the last eight years, this administration, along with Senator McCain, has been solely focused on Iraq," Obama said as an example of how McCain, too, had taken his eye off the ball in Afghanistan. "That has been their priority. That is where all their resources have gone. In the meantime, Osama bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured. He is not killed. Al Qaeda is resurgent."
On the final question, whether it was likely that there would be another 9/11 in our time, McCain said it was "much less likely" now than it was in 2001 but that the nation has "a long way to go before we can declare America safe." Obama responded that we are "safer in some ways" but that the decline in America's perception in the rest of the world due to the war in Iraq has threatened our security. "One of the things I plan to do is restore our standing in the world," Obama said, using the example of his Kenyan father, who he said wrote a letter 60 years ago in an attempt to come to college in the U.S. because he felt it was the only place on Earth where "you could make it if you tried."
Mirroring statements made by Obama's primary opponent, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton, McCain claimed he didn't need any "on-the-job training. I'm ready to go at it right now."
With 39 days left before the election, the candidates will meet up again October 7, with the vice-presidential contenders squaring off October 2.
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