For a candidate whom many people feared would not be in attendance at the first presidential debate that took place last night in Mississippi, John McCain came across as sharply prepared and ready to demonstrate what he feels is a more advanced and sophisticated grasp on the Middle East and foreign policy then that of his Democratic rival, Barack Obama. Although, for all of John McCain’s foreign policy and “maverick” bravado, he fell short in the area of good natured diplomacy toward his more congenial opponent, Barack Obama.
In a bit of foreshadowing, Barack Obama greeted John McCain at the start of the debate with eye contact and a warm smile, while John McCain kept it chilly and distant from the start. In fact, he refused eye contact with his opponent throughout much of the debate. Barack Obama repeatedly attempted to reach across partisan aisles with acknowledgements of John McCain’s qualifications and, on occasion, by looking directly toward John McCain while addressing him. To the contrary, John McCain refused to make eye contact with Barack Obama while expressing his answers and rebuttals. His insistence on a more distant exchange did appear to wear on Barack Obama whose high road approach received poor reception from the right, but overwhelmingly warm reception from his supporters.
While Barack Obama continually made reference to John McCain’s past allegiance to George W. Bush, pointing out failed policy after failed policy in Iraq and in economic issues, he appeared stymied by McCain’s ability to steer the conversation back to his foreign policy prowess. On more than one occasion John McCain accused Barack Obama of failing to “make the connection” between success in Iraq and stability in Iran and Afghanistan. He accused Obama of not understanding the difference between “tactic and strategy” and of touting foreign policies that are “naïve” and even “dangerous,” according to McCain. John McCain also took aim at Barack Obama’s allegiance to and ability to defend and indemnify the state of Israel, attempting to position himself as the candidate who will protect Israel most effectively. In short, McCain went after the Jewish vote at last night’s debate.
Barack Obama shot back by insisting that it is his judgment (he voted against the war in Iraq) that will keep the American people, and the state of Israel, safe from the Taliban as well as North Korea and Iran. Obama asserted that cutting our losses in Iraq and refocusing on Afghanistan and peace talks with Iran will help to stabilize the region, and, in effect, provide a more secure future for Israel and for The United States. This presidential debate was full of brow beating, with McCain repeatedly reprimanding Barack Obama for his willingness to sit down with the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, without pre-existing conditions, insinuating that Barack Obama is soft on terrorists for his future willingness to negotiate with a man who has called Israel a “corpse” and has promised to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth.”
Barack Obama strongly retorted by insisting that he would not agree to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without what he called significant “preparation.” The only problem is that the word “preparation” came across as a bit too vague in this particular instance. He did effectively point out, however, the continual poor judgment of John McCain in 2003 for voting alongside George W. Bush to invade Iraq and in his administration’s false touting of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Obama emphatically stated, “You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong." At one point during the debate, the two candidates engaged in a heated argument about whether former Republican Secretary of State and one of John McCain’s advisers, Henry Kissinger, supported Barack Obama’s view or John McCain’s view on this key national security and foreign affairs issue, a point of contention which John McCain took very personally.
Barack Obama remained steadfast in matters of the economy and his promise to rescue the middle class and working class from continued corporate corruption, tax breaks for the wealthy and lack of affordable healthcare. When pressed on topics pertaining to the struggling middle class, John McCain displayed a pattern of deflecting the issues, bringing the attention back to Wall Street and the importance of financially wealthy corporations. Although it is an old song, Barack Obama illustrated the destructive pattern of the Republicans well known “trickle down theory” which was applied during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, through George H. W. Bush’s presidency and most notoriously throughout George W. Bush’s presidency. Barack Obama pointed out what Democrats and much of the middle and working class already know – providing financial advantages to the wealthy with the notion that the wealth will trickle down to the middle class is simply not effective. It is an argument as old as the two political parties, themselves. It was played out at last night’s presidential debate once again.
The fundamental economic principles of John McCain are to provide tax breaks for the wealthiest 1% of the country and to provide tax breaks for business owners and large corporations in hopes that this will help to create more jobs and more salary raises in the workplace, will stimulate Wall Street and will stimulate the retail and wholesale economic trade. In stark contrast, Barack Obama stated that to rescue this economy and to provide much needed relief to middle class and working class families, we must start from “the bottom up,” and not from the top down. Barack Obama went on to cite George W. Bush as “exhibit A” and to further attempt to link John McCain to many of these failed policies of the last eight years. Healthcare was all but ignored in last night’s debate with the brief exception of Barrack Obama’s mention that the current cost of healthcare is crushing to the middle class, and John McCain’s retort that families should decide their healthcare needs as opposed to the federal government.
This first presidential debate was punctuated with some personal character jabs, as both candidates cleverly contorted one another’s voting records in the Senate, prompting feverish fact checking by Fox News and CNN. When the heat got turned up too high, it was predictably defused with some self effacing humor and laughter.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain each shined in their areas of expertise: Obama on matters of social reform and the economy, and John McCain on national security and foreign policy. Where they each fell short was in successfully knocking the other off of their respective platforms.