Presidential Debate One: Advantage Sen. McCain

–Richard E. Vatz

If debates are a measure of who would be a better president, Sen. John McCain should be elected Commander-in Chief per last night’s first presidential debate of 2008.

There are few resolved issues wherein two presidential aspirants take diametrically opposed positions before the dispute is decided. The Iraqi “surge,” however, is just such an issue in this election.

Last night Sen. McCain (or “John” to Sen. Barack Obama – was this a strategic decision to lessen the hierarchical distance between them?) clearly and unambiguously made the point that Sen. Obama’s plan for precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, opposing and pessimistically assessing the “surge,” would have led to U.S. forces’ being pulled out last year, losing the war, compromising the United States’ influence in the world and leaving the Middle East in inescapable instability. The “surge,” an indisputable success, leaves Sen. Obama uncharacteristically gasping for air.

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On other matters the debate was, in the opinion of this observer, a close call, if you control for the support of the two men’s political philosophies. Neither man had the political courage to state his position on the financial recovery plan. There was the classic Democratic-Republican clash on taxes, wherein Sen. Obama wants to raise taxes on corporations, and Sen. McCain argued that U.S. corporations already pay the 2nd highest taxes in the democratic world and that there are diminishing returns to all taxation programs.

Sen. McCain won some small, insufficiently attended-to, disputes, such as the need for offshore drilling and the false assertion by Democrats that he has been an echo chamber for President Bush. He was also right – and Sen. Obama was wrong — in his characterization of Henry Kissinger and his (Sen. McCain’s) similarity on strategy in dealing with negotiations with Iran. Sen. Obama made some indisputably correct points regarding the over-exuberant predictions that Sen. McCain made at the beginning of the war in Iraq.

On style, both men were superb – prepared, fluent, engaging with alacrity in good clash. Sen. Obama interrupted Sen. McCain when the latter was making telling points, but it is the job of the moderator – Jim Lehrer of PBS – to control this. Let me just say, parenthetically, that Mr. Lehrer was terrible. He incongruously insisted on chastising the debaters to look at each other, and he made other pointless observations and interruptions and then ignored the Obama interruptions.

There are two major ways to look at Presidential debates: who wins the substantive clash on the issues, and who wins over voters who are undecided and/or low intensity supporters of one’s opponents.

An unrepresentative, national CNN poll came out overnight – in a bizarre coincidence, I know one of the respondents – and showed Obama “won.” Such polls sometimes have persuasive effects (in 1980 an unrepresentative poll showing Gov. Reagan beating President Carter may have helped the former), but they are simply irresponsible, even if done accurately, which this was not. CNN made the classic indefensible media choice of being first, even when accuracy is at risk.

So overall: Sen. McCain wins the “foreign policy” debate that included economic crisis issues. The electoral effect may be negligible.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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