Some thoughts on the first US Presidential Debate

By Nick Li

After all the drama of the last few days, Barack Obama and John McCain finally got down to business today. US Presidential Debates are a very strange format for disseminating information about the candidates and their policies. The participants have very short periods in which to communicate their points, and tend to get judged as much on style as substance. Did Al Gore sigh? Did George HW Bush glance at his watch? Did Kennedy look better than Nixon? To make matters worse, in the US the debate is immediately followed by non-stop spin by the spokepeople for both camps, and any opportunity to take words out of context or dwell exclusively on minor gaffes tends to dominate discussion of the actual issues or the veracity of the speakers’ claims. Don’t expect the media to call out John McCain if he claims that Barack Obama wants to raise your taxes (which is a true statement only for the richest 5% of viewers), as the US newsmedia no longer feels its role is to be the arbiter of truth. Impartiality demands that lies not be called lies.

I just finished watching the debate with some friends. McCain did surprisingly well, given talk about his lack of debate preparation and the generally disorganized state of his campaign in the last few weeks. A few of the major exchanges and my take on them:


I was surprised that when Obama attacked McCain on the issue of tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of tax cuts for the middle-class, McCain generally evaded the issue and tried to shift the debate into spending. There are some Republicans who don’t try to hide their ideological position that we should not punish the most successful through redistributive taxation (and who sneeringly condemn any attempt to make taxation more progressive as socialism, class warfare, etc.) but clearly the present state of the US economy and public opinion is such that McCain is not willing to make this argument forcefully in the same way Ronald Reagan or President Bush did. I suppose the record of trickle-down economics in the last 8 years has something to do with that. I was also surprised that McCain did not flat-out lie and accuse Obama of wanting to raise taxes on the middle-class, something that Republicans have had little problem doing before (and that McCain’s surrogates have no problem doing now). Two big numbers were thrown out – $300 billion (the amount of tax breaks McCain wanted to give the rich) and $900 billion (the cost of Obama’s new spending proposals). The $900 billion figure would have to refer to a 10 year period, as there is no conceivable way Obama’s policies would cost $900 billion per year (the combination of his health care proposal and energy plan would amount to about $80 billion per year, let’s be charitable and say that education and infrastructure make another $20-30 billion per year. The $300 billion figure is also hard to source. The tax policy center (, which has compared the Obama and McCain tax plans relative to current law and also current policy, estimates that McCain’s tax cuts will cost an additional $1.3 trillion over the next decade (on top of Obama’s plan, which amounts to a slight net tax increase relative to current policy but still a large tax cut relative to current law, which has the Bush tax cuts for all income brackets expiring in 2010), which amounts to $130 billion per year.


McCain talked a lot about earmarks and controlling spending, really his only foray into economic policy (other than a mention of his $5000 per family health tax credit, which Obama correctly pointed out willl be offset by taxing current employer based health plans). Obama correctly pointed out that total earmark spending, by conventional measures, is about $18 billion a year at this point, compared to a federal deficit that sits at about $400 billion this year and is expected to reach about $500 billion next year. So we are talking about small change relative to the magnitude of the fiscal problem. McCain also reiterated his desire to freeze growth of non-defense discretionary spending which is about $493 billion per year. It grew about 4% per year under Clinton and 8% per year under Bush. Stopping this increase would save about $40 billion in additional deficit next year, which is significantly more than eliminating all earmarks, but McCain has not said specifically what he would cut.Cutting this segment of the budget could lead to significant cutbacks in education and transportation, income security, and health sectors which make up the majority of non-defense discretionary expenditures.

As for earmarks, eliminating all earmarks is unlikely as it would involve cutbacks to veterans benefits and housing programs (which McCain has said he would not cut) as well as to major construction projects that are already under way by the Army Corps of Engineers. Realistically, McCain could probably eliminate half of all earmarks, or about $9 billion. Compared to the scope of his additional pro-wealthy tax cut, Obama was correct to point to the much greater fiscal stakes involved with tax policy. Incidentally, I wish Obama had replied to McCain’s criticism of his own earmark requests by pointing out that by extension of opposing his earmarks, McCain was opposing after school programs for at risk youth, research into soybean disease and livestock genes, teacher training, fixing broken water mains, nanomedical technology research, etc. You can see a long list of his requested (not necessarily received) earmarks here:

The bottom line is that while not all earmarks are equally "good," there is no doubt that any person can find some earmarks that are potentially worthy of public support. Obama’s position has been that transparency is key, and along with McCain he helped pass a bill creating a federal earmark registry where you can search who sponsored which earmarks. This also appeared to be VP candidate Sarah Palin’s position until recently. 

Changing priorities in light of financial crisis

Jim Lehrer asked this question several times. In light of the current financial crisis and economic downturn, what programs would you sacrifice. Neither candidate wanted to be specific, perhaps because neither one really knows what kind of fiscal situation they will inherit. McCain talked about cutting spending, Obama talked about delaying some of his energy spending programs. Ultimately, expecting a detailed answer on this would require that either candidate present a realistically costed budget based on an uncertain forecast of economic conditions,  something that we have probably never seen in any political race ever in any country.


 McCain trumpeted his support for the surge, Obama trumpeted his initial opposition to the war. Interestingly, McCain did not really have to defend his early position (I’m sure he has been asked the "if you know everything you know now, would you still have done it?" question before and answered affirmatively). Obama scored some points by noting that McCain had made several statements about ignoring Afghanistan and that his criticisms of Bush’s strategy came quite a bit later than would have been helpful (e.g. after General Shinseki was basically fired for being one of the first to call for much greater troop levels). McCain fought back by telling voters to ignore the past and focus on who would best lead the US to "victory with honor" (not defined). He also twisted Petraeus’ comments that a precipitous withdrawal could be really destabilizing in Iraq into an attack on Obama, who was not quite able to make the point that Petraeus wasn’t talking about his phased withdrawal with timetables specifically but the idea of a rapid pullout. Obama failed to make the obvious point that Iraq’s own government has called for a US withdrawal with a timetable, perhaps for fear of giving McCain an opening to say "well, that’s because of the surge that I orchestrated."


Obama was much friendlier and nicer than McCain in this debate, and gave him credit for his opposition to Bush on the torture issue. He could have mentioned the fact that McCain ultimately voted against imposing the Army Field Manual standards on the CIA, opting instead to leave room for the CIA (but not the armed forces) to deploy "enhanced interrogation techniques" against enemies, including potentially waterboarding (which McCain has opposed on the record) but also things like sensory deprivation, dogs, forced nudity, etc. (that McCain has not specifcally opposed on the record).

Meeting without preconditions

This debate devolved into semantics, with both candidates citing Kissinger’s support for their positions.Obama tried to make a nuanced point about preparations (which means low-level meetings prior to a presidential level meeting) versus preconditions (which means getting what you want essentially before talks are held, while McCain tried to characterize Obama’s position as Presidential level meetings without any prior lower level talks. Frankly, I don’t know why Obama had to cite Kissinger’s opinion – I know he wants to appeal to a broad swathe of voteres, but I’m not sure Kissinger is perceived by the American public as the final authority on foreign policy. This leaves an opening for Kissinger, who is advising McCain, to join in and mischaracterize Obama’s position as naive as well. Of course, I am being charitable to Obama here – it was never really clear from his statements in the prior Democratic primary debates what exactly he meant by meeting face to face with rogue regime leaders without preconditions. His response would probably be "I’m not just going to invite Ahmadinejad over for a tea party."


McCain called Obama naive for his statement that he would strike inside Pakistan against high-level Al-Quaeda targets if the Pakistanis wouldn’t cooperate. Of course, the Bush administration is conducting strikes inside Pakistan right now. McCain’s point seemed to be – "ok, do it, but don’t say you’ll do it." I’m not sure how that matters when we are currently ALREADY DOING IT. Obama replied nicely by asking McCain whether he would NOT attack Bin Laden or a senior Al-Quaeda lieutenant inside Pakistan if he had the opportunity, to which McCain replied by changing the subject and not replying. Perhaps in a future interview McCain will inform us of his secret plan to capture Bin Laden, and whether the "gates of hell" extend into Waziristan.  McCain did impress by noting that he had visited all of these places, perhaps enough to make up for his vice-presidents recent acquisition of a passport last year.


Though the candidates largely agreed, McCain managed to be more hawkish by repeatedly calling Putin a KGB agent and by accusing Obama of failing to respond properly to the recent Russian invasion by calling for "restraint from both sides." Of course, many observers would agree that Obama’s response – condemning Russia’s actions as illegal and objectionable while at the same time calling for de-escalation from both parties – was the responsible thing to do. Some might even acknowledge that Georgia played a role in provoking the crisis by sending troops into regions that were strongly pro-Russian and somewhat autonomous, which had been free of Georgian troops for years. I suppose Obama cannot make this point because Georgia is a democracy, while Russia is not (though in 2007 Georgia ranked below Russia and the evil Venezuela based on the Economists democracy index


Overall, McCain did better than I expected, though since he was supposed to be the foreign policy expert it is not clear he won based on the expectations game. I think McCain did well by staying on the offensive, calling Obama naive and inexperienced numerous times (while simultaneously talking at length about his many travels, votes, and personal relationships) and by mischaracterizing many of Obama’s positions without giving Obama time and space to successfully respond. It remains to be seen whether the American public responds well to these attacks, and whether they are able to grasp the subtleties of Obama’s more nuanced approach to foreign policy. My favorite moment – the look on McCain’s face when Obama mentioned his ‘Bomb bomb bomb Iran’ comments and his statement about possibly not meeting with the Prime Minister of Spain, a NATO ally.

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3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the first US Presidential Debate

  1. It is interesting to note that we already have our own little copy of what’s going on in the US: the Netherlands, together with Belgium and Luxemburg, just bought a minority interest (49%) in Fortis (the Netherlands had to pay 4 billion). When this deal will be discussed in Parliament, it seems clear that one of the crucial questions will be: ‘Will the taxpayers have to foot the bill for the salaries and bonuses of the topmanagers who are at least partly responsible for what happened?’

  2. I don’t know if I would defend big severance packages or salaries for CEOs of virtually bankrupt corporations. And apparently, based on the proposed bill that will probably be passed tomorrow, neither does the US congress. The bailout has been called socialism for the rich by many (and indeed it is most fervently opposed by the most conservative Republicans, who preach personal responsibility, ‘market discipline’ and protecting taxpayer dollars) but economists see the bailout more in terms of systemic risk than redistribution. There is hope that much of the money invested will be recouped eventually. Looming at the back of every economist’s mind is the great depression and a desire to avoid a repeat – 25% unemployment does not benefit anyone. And as was pointed out today by a few commentators, if Wall Street suddenly collapsed tomorrow, it would not be the millionaire CEOs who would suffer the brunt of the damage. [Some proposals to pay for the bailout, in addition to limiting CEO compensation, also included income tax surchages on the wealthy for a limited period, per financial transaction taxes (like in the UK) and potential confiscation of wealth of the parties receiving the bailout if the full value is not recouped. All but the last one were non-starters, but the language of the bill, as written, suggests that the government could either get an equity share in the corporations it bails out or get money more vaguely from the “financial sector” that benefits from the bailout.]

  3. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for that. I guess that all the international law stuff, like terrorism, Guantanamo Bay and the invasions of Iraq and Georgia by the US and Russia, respectively, will be but a footnote in the upcoming elections, now that the economy is in such trouble. I wouldn’t want to be the next President!

    I had a question about the economy. You write that some Republicans believe that we should not punish the most successful for being successful by ‘imposing’ redistributive taxation on them. I was wondering about that: isn’t the exact opposite going to happen now? I mean, according to the rescue plan, as I understand it, the State, i.e. the taxpayers, will now take over much of the financial difficulties of the big commercial financial institutions, and this essentially means that they will also have to pay for the 40-million dollar salaries enjoyed in the past few years by those in charge of these institutions. Is that correct? And how can you defend that? (Or did I miss something?? After all, I am not an economist.)

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