Overall, no “knockout punches,” which favors Obama by default, but he had to overcome the impression that he’s not a foreign-policy lightweight, which he didn’t manage to do. McCain currently leads by double-digits in poll questions asking who’s the better Commander in Chief, and I doubt that will change after tonight.
9:01 Just tuned in. Jim Lehrer is giving his droning welcome.
9:02 Lehrer says topic will be foreign policy and national security, which “includes the global financial crisis.” Yeah, sure, whatever. We know you need to connect them somehow so you don’t have to act like the crash isn’t happening, so I won’t point out the clumsiness.
9:03 The candidates are out. Tighter fake-smiles I’ve never seen.
9:05 Obama is going through his plan points for the financial crisis. No diff between him and McCain, except Obama blames it all on Bush.
9:07 McCain throws a curve-ball with a shout-out to the now-hospitalized Senator Ted Kennedy. Didn’t see that coming…sentimental touch. Does he really need to say “…and I’ve been around a little while?” (We already know he’s old.) Points out that HE went to Washington to join the negotiations on the bailout (while Obama went only after he did, after taking his “call me when you need me” pose. Paraphrases Churchill, which doesn’t really work.
9:08 Obama points out that “two years ago” he warned of financial collapse. Opens door for McCain to point out that he’s been doing the same even longer.
9:09 Fortunately neither falls into the trap of “will you vote for this [bailout] plan?”
9:10 McCain takes the “I warned” opening, but lame execution. Makes an Eisenhower (i.e. military) reference. Promises “accountability.” Obviously Obama agrees. No specifics so far from either that would distinguish the two (of course if either ticked off points, the opposing party in Congress would make sure they were killed dead).
9:11 “Did you think I couldn’t hear him?” My first laugh of the night.
9:13 Lehrer is trying to coax them into stating differences with each other. Neither is taking him up on it. Bummer. McCain goes off on a riff heaping praise on the American worker. Yawn. “Best days are ahead of us.” Double yawn.
9:14 McCain goes off on spending. Takes a shot at the Great Society as a low point. Goes off on earmarks, saying there are members of Congress in prison because of them. Pulls out a “veto pen” prop (gawd, that is SO last administration).
9:16 Obama going off on “tax cuts for the wealthiest corporations, etc.” Why do Democrats always talk about tax cuts when the subject is spending? Failing to collect as many taxes as last year is not an expenditure, Senator. (Obama brings up Bush again.)
9:18 Yikes…McCain’s goat’s been got. Goes after Obama’s earmark requests. Goes after threefold increase in earmarks in last five years. Obama interrupts and says “I dunno where John’s getting his figures.”
9:19 Obama talks about “going through line by line” to make sure spending is cut. Somebody should tell him the line-item veto was ruled unconstitutional years ago. Bush Reference #3.
9:20 McCain points out that he wants to cut business taxes because they’re the second highest in the freakin’ world and everybody’s taking their businesses elsewhere because of it. Still P.O.’d about the earmarks thing, gets back on that subject. On taxes, says you can’t raise taxes in troubled times, and FINALLY forces Obama to define “rich” (almost). Obama says if you make less than $250K you’re not rich (sort of).
9:22 Obama’s halting, stammering speech pattern reminds me of Vincent D’Onofrio in Law & Order: CI, or maybe Captain Kirk. McCain’s monotone only occasionally modulates, when he’s ticked. Dunno if I could listen to either of these guys for four years.
9:24 McCain says Obama’s raised taxes on people making as little as $42K; Obama says pants on fire, and changes the subject to Big Oil.
9:27 Obama: energy independence in 10 years? WTF?? How about free candy to go along with it? Says China just had their first space launch/space walk as an example urging us to stay competitive, when we’ve been doing both of those things routinely for decades.
9:28 McCain brings up “most liberal voting record in the Senate,” and that “it’s hard to reach that far across the aisle.” Not bad, but he delivered it badly. Just noticed that his necktie is freakin’ blinding…unplug it, please. Back to wasteful spending.
9:30 Lehrer is actually pretty sharp tonight. Not letting either of them off the hook as to what they’d do differently or give up in the face of the financial crisis. Obama keeps saying “we’ve got to make some cuts,” but still refuses to be specific. Says his “most liberal voting record” is, of course, Bush’s fault (BR #4). Talks about the “transparency bill” Tom Coburn wrote up and he glommed onto as an example of bipartisanship, when that was more of an appropriators vs. reformers fight than Dem vs. GOP.
9:33 OK, now Obama’s trying to talk about cutting spending and nevertheless brings up increasing funding for education.
9:34 Obama says we spend too much on Iraq; McCain shoots back that we spend too much on countries that hate us. Segues back into energy independence, including nuclear (gets in a jab about how he worked with Sen. Clinton).
9:35 How the hell am I typing this so fast? The timestamps are so close together…the sheer mass of blather onstage must be bending time-space.
9:36 “$800B in new spending programs.” Nice punch on the word new.
9:37 “John, it’s your president…” (BR #5). McCain cites his “long record” of poking Bush in the eye (McCain’s BR #1).
9:39 McCain brings up his advocacy for the surge since 2003. Wonder if he’ll get Obama to admit the surge succeeded. Praises Petraeus and the troops under him; remarks what a disaster a pullout would have been. Obama says he opposed this war in 2002, when it was “politically risky.” Yes, we know what a risk it was to oppose President Bush as a state senator from the South Side of Chicago, breeding ground for militaristic Republicans.
9:42 THANK you! McCain: “The next president of the United States is not going to have to deal with the issue of whether we should go into Iraq.” Also, “Senator Obama didn’t go to Iraq for 900 days, never asked for a meeting with Petraeus, and he’s on the subcommittee that oversees NATO…it’s remarkable.” Obama calls that inside Senate baseball.
9:45 Obama gets in a good series of “you were wrong” shots. But why did he tout his selection of Joe Biden? If I were he, I would downplay Biden for now.
9:46 “Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge…” There it is. (Obama mutters, “…not true…”) Says Obama voted to cut off funding for the troops after promising not to.
9:47 Both candidates are clearly getting irritated. Obama, inexplicably, is trying to resurrect his “16 months” withdrawal strategy.
9:49 McCain says Obama’s strategy was “dangerous,” which results in a bit of testy crosstalk. Says Obama’s original 16-month strategy would have pulled our troops out of Iraq by last spring before the surge could work, and we’d “have a wider war.”
9:50 Lehrer asks Obama, re: troops in Afghanistan, “how many and when?” Obama answers that we really need troops there, as he’s been saying for over a year. The actual question sails off into the aether.
9:51 Obama’s necktie, on the other hand, is muted enough that I can see he’s restored the flag pin to his lapel.
9:52 OK, I’m giving up the fool’s errand of trying to count Obama’s Bush References.
9:53 “If you’re gonna aim a gun at somebody, you better be prepared to pull the trigger.” (McCain channeling George Shultz.) Chastises Obama for threatening Pakistan with attacks. Points out that the surge strategy that worked in Iraq won’t translate well to Afghanistan. Invokes Petraeus again. Obama says nobody talked about attacking Pakistan, which is of course crap [Link added after the fact; scroll down to Obama site screencap. — Ed]. Appears to be drawing a distinction between attacking Pakistan and attacking al Qaeda in Pakistan, but once you cross into their airspace the Pakistanis aren’t likely to split that hair.
9:56 Obama mispronounces Kim Il Sung’s name. Something like “Ing Sung Saung.”
9:57 Ahhhh, the first Reagan invocation by McCain! Interestingly, he brings him up to point out a time when he opposed Reagan (on troops in Lebanon). Goes on to tick off military decisions he made where he was alone or in the minority, and turned out to be right. Brings up the Matthew Stanley bracelet that Stanley’s mom gave him. Invokes his Vietnam time to illustrate how hard it is for troops to do well when public support back home is not forthcoming.
10:00 Obama: “I’ve got a bracelet too.” Zing. Bonus pay for the Obama staffer who saw that coming.
10:01 McCain: “You might think that with that kind of concern Obama might have gone to Afghanistan.” Zing back atcha.
10:02 Lehrer jokes that “you’re all even on time.” Obama says, “Testament to you, Jim.”
10:03 McCain brings up his long-standing “League of Democracies” idea. Kind of a non-starter, but still one that’s always fascinated me personally (if only because it would mean ditching the U.N.).
10:05 “Republican Guard in Iran?” Oh, McCain, ouch ouch ouch.
10:05 Obama repeats the error. Revolutionary Guard, jackasses. (At least I hope that’s it…else I’ll be hella embarrassed.) [Scroll down to UPDATE. — Ed.]
10:07 Obama makes a good point that we can’t exercise effective sanctions on Iran without cooperation from USSR and China, who don’t like us. Leaves out that Iran couldn’t care less about sanctions, effective or any other kind.
10:08 Obama rejects not talking to the bad guys. McCain says Reagan wouldn’t sit down with Brezhnev, Andropov, or Chernenko, or anybody until after Gorbachev’s reforms. Points out that preconditions are necessary.
10:10 Obama counters that “there’s a difference between preconditions and preparation.” If the former is not an element of the latter for Obama, he’s not the man I want directing foreign policy.
10:12 Obama says McCain wouldn’t meet with the PM of Spain (drawing off misquotes and/or inferences by the Spanish press over something else McCain said). McCain says he won’t set the White House diplomatic schedule this early, “I don’t even have a seal yet.” OK, that’s my second laugh of the evening.
10:13 McCain recalls that Madeleine Albright visited North Korea. I’m disappointed he didn’t have the footage of her dancing for Kim.
10:15 McCain gets testy again, tho’ with a smile. Says Henry Kissinger, despite Obama’s invocations of him, would be amused at the Iran engagement strategy being attributed to him by Obama. [Dr. Kissinger reacts in afterblogging post! — Ed.]
10:16 “South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” Stammering or not, Obama pronounces Slavic words way better than McCain.
10:17 Love Obama’s examples of working on a bipartisan basis. All examples of things no sane person would oppose. (Who opposes keeping track of loose nukes?)
10:18 McCain brings up Obama’s tepid response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia; segues into his first impression of Putin (“I looked into his eyes and saw three letters: K-G-B.”) Brings up Russian designs on the oil pipeline through the Caucasus into Turkey. I can’t think of a single angle on the Russia/Georgia conflict in which Obama comes out looking better than McCain, or even looking good objectively.
10:20 Obama annoyingly confuses “oil supply” and “oil resources” (the latter includes undiscovered and currently inaccessible oil, including the hundreds of billions of barrels we have in oil shale). And is there a more grating trope currently in use than “we can’t drill our way out of this problem?”
10:25 More crosstalk over who said what when regarding nuclear energy. Pants-on-firing.
10:27 Deeply unsatisfying answers on both sides regarding Lehrer’s question, “Are we safer since 9/11?” Same response from both (yes, but we’ve still got a long way to go…duh). Obama endorses missile-defense spending, which is a startling turnaround for him. Says we don’t spend enough on non-proliferation efforts, without mentioning that we depend on the wholly inadequate IAEA for enforcement (if you can call it that).
10:30 Obama laments that we’re no longer “respected.” Seems to think that anti-Americanism is also Bush’s fault.
10:31 McCain rehashes what would have happened if we’d followed Obama’s advice on Iraq.
10:32 Oh good gawd, I’ve found a more grating trope than “we can’t drill our way out of this problem.” It’s Obama’s insistence that Iraq is preventing us from providing health care for everybody.
10:34 Whoa…now McCain is comparing Obama to Bush? Another “WTF??” moment. (Was talking about stubbornness in admitting mistakes. Gutsy move, and has a point on Obama’s record on assessing the surge, but Obama and Bush? Even I don’t buy that.)
10:36 “Send a message to the world that we’re going to invest in education?” Why would the world care, pray tell?
10:36 Finally, McCain answers the question of “how long before McCain plays the POW card?” Answer: mercifully, not until the end.
FINAL EVALUATION: Good job by Lehrer. Didn’t get in the way (you listening, Chris Matthews?), and asked questions that allowed the candidates to segue into other topics, tho’ didn’t let them stray too far from the original question. Overall, for the candidates, I’d call it close to a wash. I’d give the edge to McCain, but only a slight one, because he had an edge coming in due to conventional wisdom saying he knew more about foreign policy. Obama was the one who had something to prove, and he didn’t do so. McCain “wins” solely by virtue of not shooting himself in the foot.
Commentators are saying the McCain campaign is already sending out video clips of the numerous times Obama said something along the lines of, “Senator McCain, you’re absolutely right.” I’d missed that.
I’ll leave the rest to the professional talking heads…they get paid to do this.
UPDATE: Ha! I was right about the Republican Guard vs. Revolutionary Guard issue (More accurately it’s “Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.” I’m pretty sure I’d get a pass for saying “Revolutionary Guard” if I were up there.)
UPDATE II: Here’s the McCain video of Obama’s serial agreeing: