Following are excerpts of the presidential debate [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, September 26, 2008] between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) at the University of Mississippi, hosted and moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS's NewsHour:
OBAMA: "We also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down. It hasn't worked."
Comment: Obama is making the "failed policies" accusation against Bush and McCain (and Republicans more generally), but without going into the detail necessary to substantiate such an accusation. More, his description of his opponents' economic theory is a caricature (in the same way as it is a caricature when people say that the economic theory of Obama and the Democrats is "more regulations, more taxes, bigger government").
OBAMA: "We did not set up a 21st-century regulatory framework to deal with these problems. And that in part has to do with an economic philosophy that says that regulation is always bad."
Comment: Again, Obama is caricaturing his opponents' economic philosophy. Who has said that regulation is ALWAYS bad?
OBAMA: "It's an example of this notion that the market can always solve everything and that the less regulation we have, the better off we're going to be."
Comment: And again, Obama is caricaturing his opponents' economic philosophy. Who has said that less regulation is always better (implying that zero regulation is best of all)?
MCCAIN: "Who's the person who has believed that the best thing for America is -- is to have a tax system that is fundamentally fair?"
Comment: For McCain to imply Obama does NOT want a "fundamentally fair" tax system is a caricature. Granted, McCain and Obama are going to disagree about what amounts to fairness in the tax code, but that shouldn't be distorted into the claim that one of them wants fairness and the other one doesn't.
LEHRER: "What are you going to have to give up, in terms of the priorities that you would bring as president of the United States, as a result of having to pay for the financial rescue plan?"
Comment: Both candidates -- particularly Obama -- were slow to answer this question. Lehrer had to do quite a bit of prodding in order to get them to mention any specific, sizable changes in spending they would make in response to the $700 billion financial bailout that is currently being considered.
MCCAIN: "The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not. The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind. That's the decision of the next president of the United States."
Comment: McCain is correct that the decision to invade Iraq is now in the past, and the next president is not going to be in a position to make it again. But that doesn't mean that this decision isn't an appropriate topic of discussion, as McCain seems to imply. One of the ways we learn about and evaluate a candidate is by looking at the choices they made on issues in the past. The decision on whether or not to invade Iraq may not come up again, but similar ones might. It's fair for us to discuss how McCain and Obama would handle those decisions by looking at their positions on similar ones from the past.
OBAMA: "And, John, I -- you're absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But, you know, coming from you, who, you know, in the past has threatened extinction for North Korea and, you know, sung songs about bombing Iran, I don't know, you know, how credible that is."
Comment: Obama is making an ad hominem appeal to hypocrisy. He is arguing that -- because McCain has not always been prudent about what he says -- McCain's criticism of Obama for not being prudent in what HE says is not credible. It is ad hominem reasoning to argue that -- if someone is hypocritical and doesn't practice what they preach -- then what they preach is false.
OBAMA: "The single thing that has strengthened Iran over the last several years has been the war in Iraq. Iraq was Iran's mortal enemy. That was cleared away. And what we've seen over the last several years is Iran's influence grow. They have funded Hezbollah, they have funded Hamas, they have gone from zero centrifuges to 4,000 centrifuges to develop a nuclear weapon. So obviously, our policy over the last eight years has not worked."
Comment: Obama is making the "failed policies" accusation. For it to be effective, though, he needs to give us reason to believe that there was an alternative that could have succeeded. For instance, what alternative policy would have stopped Iran from installing more centrifuges and developing its nuclear capabilities?