Oxford, Miss. – Against the backdrop of what could be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama presented starkly different visions of how they would lead the nation during Friday night’s high-stakes debate.
In what was perhaps one of the most substantive encounters in recent history, the two candidates clashed on everything from tax policy to the war in Iraq to how they’d handle the growing threat from Iran.
Senator McCain repeatedly tried to paint Senator Obama as naive and untested, while Obama regularly sought to tie McCain to what he called the “failed policies” of the Bush administration.
Both countered the attacks with a sense of command and control. Obama called for a new approach to foreign and economic policies, calling the current economic crisis “the final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush and supported by John McCain.”
As he touted his credentials as a pork-barrel-cutting maverick, McCain regularly quipped “you don’t understand” to Obama. “It’s well known I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate nor with the administration,” he noted twice.
“It was one of the more competent debates we’ve seen in a long time. There were no major gaffes. It was data-driven, and both spoke clearly to their constituencies, as they should have,” says Allan Louden, a debate expert at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I would rate it as a draw, but if it’s a draw, the draw goes to the challenger and that would be Obama.”
Several instant polls during the debate gave the overall advantage to Obama on handling the economy and Iraq. By a margin of 51 percent to 38 percent, viewers said Obama did the “best job” overall, a CNN poll found. A CBS poll of undecided voters found 40 percent said Obama won, and 22 percent gave the nod to McCain. But such immediate reactions are often short-lived, coming before each campaign begins “spinning” its view of the encounter to the public through the media.
Immediately after the debate, both campaigns sent a battery of high-profile supporters to what’s called “Spin Alley” in the Media Filing Center in Oxford to declare their candidate the clear winner.
“John McCain won this debate by a wide margin. The entire debate was fought on McCain’s ground,” says Charles Black, a top McCain campaign adviser. “The economic segments were largely on federal spending and he was talking about his record of cutting spending. Then you moved into the foreign policy segments, and on every single one of them – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia – McCain was able to show experience, knowledge, judgment, and Obama was on the defensive the whole time.”
Obama’s defenders were just as adamant that the Illinois senator won the debate.
“Obama made the case for change on domestic issues and foreign policy,” says David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager. “What John McCain did was basically defend the policies of the last eight years. Again, this was supposed to be John McCain’s debate, his home court advantage – but Barack Obama commanded the foreign policy segments of this debate.”
There were several heated exchanges. The first concerned federal spending and tax policy. McCain said “we have to “get spending under control in Washington,” pointing repeatedly to the $18 billion in so-called earmarks – money for special projects slipped into bills by individual members of Congress.
“He has asked for $932 million of earmark pork-barrel spending,” McCain said of Obama. “That’s nearly a million dollars for every day he’s been in the United States Senate.”
Obama agreed that the “earmark process has been abused” and needs reform. He noted he’s suspended any more requests for his state.
Then he turned the tables on McCain, attacking the Arizona senator’s tax plan for wasting far more than $18 billion a year by “giving $300 billion in tax cuts to some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country.”
“What I’ve called for is a tax cut for 95 percent of working families, 95 percent,” Obama said.
McCain countered that he wanted tax cuts, as well. “I want every family to have a $5,000 refundable tax credit so they can purchase their own healthcare,” he said.
Obama shot back: “Now what he doesn’t tell you is that he intends to, for the first time in history, tax health benefits….”
On foreign policy, two of the more heated exchanges dealt with Russia and Iran.
McCain attacked Obama for saying he’d be willing to sit down with some leaders like Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "without preconditions." Such an action would “legitimize him,” McCain said. “That’s not just dangerous, that’s naive.”
“Let me get this straight, we sit down with Ahmadinejad and he says, ‘We’re going to wipe Israel off the face of the earth’ and we say, ‘No you’re not?’ ” McCain said.
Obama said that was absurd – that he would of course respond to Ahmadinejad’s “nonsense.” But he reserved the right “as president” to talk to whomever, if he thought it was in the national interest of the United States.
“The idea is that we do not expect to solve every problem before we sit down to talks,” he said, noting that even the Bush administration has now come around to seeing the need for talks with Iran.
McCain also accused Obama of “a little bit of naiveté” in his initial reaction to Russia’s incursion into Georgia this summer, because Obama called for “restraint” on all sides.
Obama called that a mischaracterization and said he’d been ahead of the curve, warning the Bush administration “back in April” about the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops in Georgia, which “made no sense whatsoever.”
“We have to have foresight and anticipate some of these problems,” Obama said.
During the debate, McCain rarely looked at Obama and never once called him Barack. Obama, by contrast, smiled wryly at some of McCain’s attacks and repeatedly called McCain John. It had the feel of a father-son encounter, some analysts said, with the older man touting his judgment and experience and the younger one calling for change and a different set of priorities to be used in making judgments.
“McCain was primarily past-looking – looking back to the record and his experience. The premise was the past predicts the future,” says Kathryn Olson, a debate expert at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Obama was more future-looking, focusing on plans: His message was we need fundamental change because the past doesn’t necessarily predict the future.”