Judging the First Debate

Senator Obama helped himself last night by doing better than expected. Senator McCain did very well, but everybody expected that. In that sense, in terms of expectations, Obama won the debate by a small margin. Which is very good for his campaign. That, at least, is how I judged what the public perception would be, and the short-term political result.

My own personal judgment was different. I thought McCain started slowly, like a fighter pilot not quite willing to engage just yet. So I judged that Obama may have won the first half-hour of the debate by a small margin. Others scored McCain higher here, judging that McCain landed some tough blows about Obama’s plan to raise taxes and to add another $900 million in government spending, money the United States government does not have, just to build an ever larger government and welfare society.

During the next hour, though, when the issue turned to issues of war and peace, international order, and particular danger spots such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, I judged that Senator Obama again proved himself a smart talker, smooth, effortless, in his own utopian professorial way. He is a quick learner. He had figured out what to say. But fighter pilot McCain was now slashing away at him from every angle, demonstrating his own long experience, many travels to the world’s trouble spots, mastery of legislative history on these matters, and military attention to topography and power realities.

Soon, Obama seemed to slide into the role of bright student being taught some hard lessons – even put in his place. Senator Obama was much on the defensive during the last hour, and seemed a bit abashed. Still, he was respectful and paid frequent honor to Senator McCain. He retained his composure, but once again seemed the smoother talker but by far a lesser realist.

Most apparent to me were the many ways in which Senator Obama has moved to the right in regard to Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and even Afghanistan (although his team might argue that this is the one area on which Obama started out farthest to the right – by concentrating on killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, even if U.S. forces have to go into Pakistan to do so).

On Iraq, Obama has bit by bit admitted that, despite his own initial opposition to it and erroneous predictions about it, the Surge under General Petraeus has “succeeded wonderfully beyond anyone’s expectations.” He is still unwilling to admit that he was wrong (just like George Bush, McCain commented, unable to admit that he was wrong.) Obama has also walked back from his demand for immediate withdrawal. But he still wants to announce a deadline for withdrawal eighteen months from now (approximately March 2010).

Senator McCain kept hitting him hard on how little Obama understands about military morale, military facts on the ground, and the psychology of warfare.

I also liked very much McCain’s proposal for a League of Democracies, a sort of second United Nations, but only for like-minded nations committed to economic, political, and cultural liberty. Actions by such a League would not be so easily blocked by vetoes from big powers, such as Russia and China, that do not favor democratic institutions or ideals. The free nations have great economic power, McCain said, and might together put a great financial and economic squeeze on the fragile (and bad) government of Iran. The aim would be to stop the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in that unfortunate land.


Interestingly, both Senators evaded clear statements of their own positions on the crisis in the mortgage markets. Perhaps this was because the issue is still in doubt in Washington, and they did not want to make matters worse in an already divided congress. Obama said he was in favor of Treasury Secretary Paulson’s Planned Bail-out Plan, but only if it met four new conditions. His four conditions sounded very much like those of the free-market Republicans in the House of Representatives (the branch of Congress closest to the people, facing election every two years). McCain was more reticent, saying only that he wanted the voice of the conservatives in the House to be heard. He briefly pointed out that he had succeeded in getting them included in the negotiations in the White House.

Here is the political problem for the Democrats. They are in favor of big government and therefore have been willing to sign on to the Paulson Plan. They have more than enough votes to do what they wish, without any Republican help. But there is considerable fear among Democrats (a) that government bail-outs might become a normal course of events, as private companies want to privative profits, but socialize losses (passing them off on the taxpayers); and (b) the whole effort may end up failing. By very large majorities, the American public dislikes the Paulson Plan, when they learn what is in it. They do not want to pass a new $700 billion debt onto their children.

Yes, the Democrats have enough votes both in the Senate and the House to pass these bills without any Republican help. But they do not want to do that, and in fact fear the effect of a sizable Republican refusal to vote ‘yes.’ If things went sour then, the Republicans would have a powerful club to beat up on Democrats for a generation or more. That is why the Democrats passionately desire a significant number of Republicans to vote along with them. They want political “cover.” They want any possible future opprobium equally shared.

This Democratic fear has given the Republican House members great leverage over the final result. Since McCain played a key role in getting them into the White House to have their objections heard, and to put their own new proposals on the table for serious consideration, the stage may now be set for a compromise reasonable to both sides, although not fully satisfactory to either.

The U.S. is a Center-Right country, and this fact explains a lot. A far larger proportion of its citizens than in Europe really care about personal independence as opposed to welfare dependency, prefer freedom to security from the state, and take pride in limited government. That is what has forced Obama to keep moving rightward (he is the most leftward of any member of the U.S. Senate, according to measures of his voting record). That is why the Paulson Plan is so deeply unpopular, even though almost everybody wants the mortgage crisis solved soon.

Keep recalling that McCain is a fighter pilot. Last week, when Obama again slipped ahead of him in the polls, like an enemy jet above and behind McCain pouring fire into McCain’s campaign, the trained fighter pilot suddenly stopped in mid-air, to allow Obama to swoop in front of him. That is when McCain took the offensive position with Obama clearly in his sights up ahead, turning the battle around.

Only the Republican House can give the Democrats the new bill they want signed this weekend, if possible. No one else but McCain was willing to make the White House, Paulson, and the over-confident Democrats listen to the sensible Republican proposals for modifying – seriously – the Paulson Plan. If from McCain’s bold flight to Washington in mid-campaign a compromise is reached that better defends the interests of the American public, and makes the people owners of failed assets (which might soon gain in value, once the market turns up again) rather than just heavy debtors, McCain will once again have shown that he knows how to bring about bi-partisan cooperation and compromise. Wisely, he has not tried to boast about this, or to lord it over anyone. His mode has been to listen, and merely try to arrange ways to bring everybody together. It is his signature style.

Of course, the whole effort may fall apart. The Democrats made an early fatal mistake by failing to include those most opposed to the Paulson Plan – the Republicans in the House, plus a handful of important leaders in the Senate – inside their negotiations. That is what McCain tried to change. As of Saturday noontime in Washington, the outcome is not clear.

That outcome may prove more important than the first debate.