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Presidential Debate No. 1 Reaction And Roundup

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For a debate that was originally intended to focuses exclusively on foreign policy, there was a point during the evening where I wondered if we’d see more than a prefunctory focus on matters outside the United States.

From the beginning and for the first 40 minutes, Jim Lehrer kept the focus solely and exclusively on the financial crisis that nearly led to a postponment of the debate, and it’s impact on the American economy. While Obama focused on the traditional Democratic themes of blaming the crisis on the greed of Wall Street speculators and insufficient regulation from Washington, the Republican candidate responded by……..blaming the crisis on the greed of Wall Street speculators and insufficient regulation from Washington. Not once, despite ample evidence he could cite to support it, did McCain mention the role that government played in the loosening of credit that led to the housing bubble that created the credit crisis we are in today. Instead, he repeated what Obama said and essentially handed that issue to his opponent.

When the focus shifted to the budget, McCain continued his admirable, if somewhat misplaced, focus on the relatively minor issue of earmarks while Obama contrasted his tax cut plan with that of his opponents, and promised tax relief to middle class America. My guess is that people are going to like hearing about tax cuts, even if reality means that those cuts won’t happen.

Then Jim Lehrer asked both candidates the question they didn’t want to answer — what impact would the current financial crisis, and the estimated $ 700 billion bailout cost, have on their plans for tax cuts and spending. In the end, neither candidate was able to look the American public in the eye and admit that whatever promises they might have made over the past eighteen months are out the window thanks to an unforseen budget item that will pretty much eat up whatever additional spending they might have had in mind. On this one, both candidates played the artful dodger; neither one of them wanted to admit that external circumstances created by the housing market and credit crisis would force them to scale back their grandiose visions for reform — that can wait until January 21, 2009.

On the whole, it seemed as though the economic policy segment of the debate was an even match between the candidates. Neither one of them said anything that was likely to hurt them, and neither one of them said anything that seems likely to hit the ball out of the park.

Then, finally, we moved on to the reason for the debate to begin with, foreign policy.

For the most part, I thought McCain did okay here, but not to the extent that he really outpeformed Obama.

On Iraq, he focused almost exclusively on his advocacy of the surge a year and a half ago, and failed to acknowledge the three years of mistakes, many of them policy decisions he supported, that made the surge necessary. More importantly, it seems obvious that McCain doesn’t think that the American public cares that much about the reasons we went into Iraq back in 2003; I’m guessing that he’s misreading that but I don’t know how much of an impact it will have on the election.

On Iran, Obama and McCain engaged in what ultimately seems to be a silly debate about preconditions vs. preparations when it comes to talking with the regime in Tehran, and McCain clearly mis-stated Henry Kissinger’s position on the proper way to engage the Iranians diplomatically.

The thing about the foreign policy portion of the debate that struck me though was this; while McCain clearly came across as more comfortable, even more knowledgable, when it came to foreign affairs, Barack Obama didn’t stumble, didn’t make a mistake, and didn’t say anything that would clearly hurt him in the campaign.

For that reason, I think that this debate was a draw and, given the fact that Obama is the one challenging the status quo in this election, that makes it a victory for Obama.

Before the debate, all the polls were trending in Obama’s favor. Since McCain did nothing tonight that could come close to being called a game-changer, I would suspect that will continue after tonight.