Monday, October 20, 2008

Analysis: October 15th Presidential Debate between John McCain and Barack Obama in New York

Following are excerpts of the presidential debate [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, October 15, 2008] between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) at Hofstra University, hosted and moderated by by Bob Schieffer of CBS:

SCHIEFFER: Senator McCain, you proposed a $52 billion plan that includes new tax cuts on capital gains, tax breaks for seniors, write-offs for stock losses, among other things. Senator Obama, you proposed $60 billion in tax cuts for middle- income and lower-income people, more tax breaks to create jobs, new spending for public works projects to create jobs. I will ask both of you: Why is your plan better than his?

Comment: McCain doesn't answer this question. He never makes any clear attempt to compare his own plan to Obama's. He only discusses the details of his own plan.


MCCAIN: You know, when Senator Obama ended up his conversation with Joe the plumber -- we need to spread the wealth around. In other words, we're going to take Joe's money, give it to Senator Obama, and let him spread the wealth around. I want Joe the plumber to spread that wealth around. You told him you wanted to spread the wealth around. The whole premise behind Senator Obama's plans are class warfare, let's spread the wealth around.

Comment: McCain is referring to a conversation Obama had with Ohio resident Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher on October 11, 2008, regarding how Obama's tax plan would affect Wurzelbacher [YouTube: 'Joe the Plumber' Becomes Focus of Debate; LiveLeak: Complete 'Joe the Plumber' conversation without Fox News commentary]. In that conversation, Obama defended his plan to raise federal income taxes on those with incomes above $250,000 in order to pay for the lowering of taxes on those with lower incomes, saying:

I think that when we spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.

McCain doesn't spell out what he means when he describes Obama's tax policy as "class warfare", so it's difficult to evaluate his assertion. It's not clear whether McCain is caricaturing Obama's policy or exaggerating its consequences or engaging in name-calling or class-based identity politics, but the allusion to warfare is inappropriate.

There is a legitimate point of debate, here, regarding tax policy: should tax policy be more responsive to considerations of need -- that is, should tax rates be based on how much money people need to keep for themselves or receive from the government -- or should tax policy be more responsive to considerations of merit -- that is, should tax rates be based on how much people have worked, produced, and earned?

Obama and other Democrats often want to adjust taxes and spending programs on the basis of need, saying that more money or aid should be given to the poor, who are in need. This money and aid, they say, should come from the wealthy, who -- being rich -- have money and resources to spare.

McCain and other Republicans often want to adjust taxes and spending programs on the basis of merit, saying that taxes should be lowered so that people can keep more of the money they have earned by working. They also advocate that people work in order to gain more income, rather than receiving aid from the government for free.

In practice, our tax and spending policies are responsive to both need and merit to varying degrees. But there is an ongoing debate about whether (and in what way) they should be more responsive to need, or more responsive to merit. In other words, there is an ongoing debate as to whether need or merit should win out in thousands (or even millions) of aspects of our tax and spending policies.

McCain's "class warfare" accusation does nothing to help people understand this moral conflict in general, or to understand McCain's own stance on it and his appeal to merit. It only serves to make people think the worst about his opponents, to make them think that his opponents are inciting warfare between the classes.

(Obama does much the same thing with his frequent description of Republican tax and spending policies as "Social Darwinism" [AP: Obama Accuses Bush of 'Social Darwinism' (March 27, 2007); AFL-CIO National Convention (July 25, 2005); and Commencement Address: Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois (June 4, 2005). As with McCain, Obama's "Social Darwinism" accusation does nothing to help people understand this moral conflict in general, or to understand Obama's own stance on it and his appeal to need. It only serves to make people think the worst about his opponents, to make them think that his opponents are encouraging everyone to leave the needy for dead.)


OBAMA: Now, Senator McCain talks a lot about earmarks. That's one of the centerpieces of his campaign. Earmarks account for 0.5 percent of the total federal budget. There's no doubt that the system needs reform and there are a lot of screwy things that we end up spending money on, and they need to be eliminated. But it's not going to solve the problem.

Comment: Obama is using offering up a "silver bullet" caricature of McCain's position on spending. Yes, McCain has opposed earmarks, but he has never said that simply eliminating earmarks will be enough to reform the federal budget. Obama is distorting McCain's position by implying that McCain believes that eliminating earmarks is a "silver bullet" that will fix the budget.


MCCAIN: I have fought against spending. I have fought against special interests. I have fought for reform. You have to tell me one time when you have stood up with the leaders of your party on one single major issue.

Comment: In praising himself for fighting them, McCain is deriding special interests. But why are they bad? What's wrong with special interests? McCain needs to spell this out.

Similarly, McCain is criticizing Obama for not showing independence from his party, the Democrats. (McCain prides himself in occasionally standing against his own party, the Republicans.) But what is the value of being independent of your own party, of being a "maverick"? It's only good to be independent of your party when your party is wrong. If your party is right, then you should stick with it; if your party is wrong, you shouldn't. Before he can criticize Obama for not going against the Democrats, McCain must identify what issue Democrats are wrong on that it would make it worthwhile to be independent of them.

An additional point: given that being a maverick is only a good thing if you're supporting a worthy cause, those who oppose their party on a regular basis should ask themselves if they're in the right party to begin with.

That is, if you're frequently justified in being a maverick and in being independent of your party, doesn't that mean that your party is frequently wrong?


OBAMA: I've got a history of reaching across the aisle.

Comment: The same principles apply here as to McCain's insistence that he is a maverick. Being bipartisan is -- in and of itself -- no more good or bad than being a maverick. If being bipartisan achieves something good, that's good. If it doesn't, then that's not good. Obama must identify what issue Democrats and Republicans are right about that it would make it worthwhile to be bipartisan.


OBAMA: Now with respect to a couple of things Senator McCain said, the notion that I voted for a tax increase for people making $42,000 a year has been disputed by everybody who has looked at this claim that Senator McCain keeps on making. Even FOX News disputes it, and that doesn't happen very often when it comes to accusations about me.

Comment: So, McCain has criticized Obama for voting for a tax increase, and Obama is trying to refute the criticism. And he is doing it by arguing that even some of his opponents -- FOX News, in this case -- dismiss the criticism McCain is making.

In other words, Obama is committing the "even my opponents agree" fallacy. Just because your opponent supports the same position you do doesn't somehow give that position extra credibility. Or -- to apply the principle to this particular circumstance -- just because FOX News agrees with Obama on a position doesn't make that position more believable.

To convince us that McCain's criticism is baseless, Obama needs to do more than just say that one of his opponents also believes that it's baseless. He needs to go into the substance of the criticism itself. He needs to give evidence that the claim is false, which he doesn't do.


OBAMA: Now, you've shown independence -- commendable independence, on some key issues like torture, for example, and I give you enormous credit for that. But when it comes to economic policies, essentially what you're proposing is eight more years of the same thing. And it hasn't worked. And I think the American people understand it hasn't worked. We need to move in a new direction.

Comment: There's a few things going on, here.

First, Obama is praising McCain for being independent of his party (that is, for being a maverick). However, (like McCain) he fails to explain why being a maverick is good.

Second, as he did in the September 26th debate and the October 7th debate, Obama is making the "failed policies" accusation against President George W. Bush and McCain (and, yet again, against Republicans more generally), but without going into the detail necessary to substantiate such an accusation.

Lastly, Obama is making a claim on behalf of the American people, but without providing any evidence. He says the American people believe Bush's policies have failed: does that mean ALL the American people believe this, just SOME, or a MAJORITY? He doesn't specify which. If he is saying that all or the majority of the American people believe this, he needs to provide evidence.


MCCAIN: But it's very clear that I have disagreed with the Bush administration. I have disagreed with leaders of my own party. I've got the scars to prove it. Whether it be bringing climate change to the floor of the Senate for the first time. Whether it be opposition to spending and earmarks, whether it be the issue of torture, whether it be the conduct of the war in Iraq, which I vigorously opposed. Whether it be on fighting the pharmaceutical companies on Medicare prescription drugs, importation. Whether it be fighting for an HMO patient's bill of rights. Whether it be the establishment of the 9/11 Commission. I have a long record of reform and fighting through on the floor of the United States Senate. ... Senator Obama, your argument for standing up to the leadership of your party isn't very convincing.

Comment: Again, McCain praises his own independence from the Republican Party while deriding Obama for not being independent enough from the Democratic Party. But, once more, he doesn't explain why independence and being a maverick is necessarily a good thing.


SCHIEFFER: Senator Obama, your campaign has used words like "erratic," "out of touch," "lie," "angry," "losing his bearings" to describe Senator McCain. Senator McCain, your commercials have included words like "disrespectful," "dangerous," "dishonorable," "he lied." Your running mate said he "palled around with terrorists." Are each of you tonight willing to sit at this table and say to each other's face what your campaigns and the people in your campaigns have said about each other?

MCCAIN: ... I think the tone of this campaign could have been very different. And the fact is, it's gotten pretty tough. And I regret some of the negative aspects of both campaigns. But the fact is that it has taken many turns which I think are unacceptable. One of them happened just the other day, when a man I admire and respect -- I've written about him -- Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful. And, Senator Obama, you didn't repudiate those remarks. Every time there's been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them. I hope that Senator Obama will repudiate those remarks that were made by Congressman John Lewis, very unfair and totally inappropriate. So I want to tell you, we will run a truthful campaign. This is a tough campaign. And it's a matter of fact that Senator Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history.

OBAMA: ... Well, look, you know, I think that we expect presidential campaigns to be tough. I think that, if you look at the record and the impressions of the American people -- Bob, your network just did a poll, showing that two-thirds of the American people think that Senator McCain is running a negative campaign versus one-third of mine. And 100 percent, John, of your ads -- 100 percent of them have been negative.

Comment: McCain expresses the wish that the electoral debate had been conducted according to a higher standard on both sides, but he doesn't give a clear idea of what standard he is espousing, or why it is superior.

McCain also doesn't specify how his own campaign has failed to live up to that standard. But he DOES note a failure on the side of his opponent: a statement made October 11, 2008, by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA):

"As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing today reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse. During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who only desired to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed one Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all. They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better."
* Rep. John Lewis Responds to Increasing Hostility of McCain-Palin Campaign (October 11, 2008)
* AP: Congressman says McCain 'sowing seeds of hatred' (October 11, 2008)
* CNN: Rep. Lewis clarifies controversial remarks about McCain, Palin (October 12, 2008)
McCain is right to criticize Lewis for his remarks, and he is right to insist that it is the sort of thing that everyone -- Lewis' opponents and allies, including Obama -- should condemn. Lewis' accusation -- that McCain and his running mate -- Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) -- are inciting violence on a par with the incitements of Wallace -- is baseless. Both sides have sought to encourage us to believe the worst about their opponents.

McCain goes on to insist that he has "repudiated" every "out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican". This would be laudable if it were true, but it isn't true. During both the Republican primary and the general election, Republicans have made several unfair remarks about Democrats, and McCain hasn't even come close to repudiating all of them. In fact, many of the unfair remarks about Democrats have been made by McCain himself, and he has neither repudiated nor disowned them. So, while McCain is correct that setting a higher standard of political debate involves (among other things) repudiating the misbehavior of your allies as well as your opponents, he's wrong when he says that he's lived up to that standard.

After pledging to run an "honest campaign", McCain then goes on to accuse Obama of paying for political ads that engage in "negative politics". (McCain admits that he's doing the same thing, but insists that Obama is spending MORE money doing so.) But he doesn't specify precisely what is negative about Obama's ads (or about his own, for that matter). In the same way that he doesn't spell out what counts as setting a higher standard of debate, he also doesn't spell out what counts as going "negative".

For his part, Obama claims that McCain is going negative, but he ALSO doesn't specify what standard of "negative politics" he is employing.

Obama cites an opinion poll [NY Times: Poll Says McCain Is Hurting His Bid by Using Attacks (October 14, 2008); PDF of results] that says twice as many people believe McCain is running a negative campaign as believe that Obama is. But, as is so often the problem with opinion polls, the respondents aren't asked to justify their opinion, only to report it.

In what sense do the poll's respondents believe that McCain is "attacking" Obama? How do they justify the belief that those attacks are unfair, rather than being legitimate criticism? The poll questions -- and, therefore, the respondents -- don't go into any of those details.

So the poll Obama cites merely reports opinions without investigating how or whether those opinions are justified. As such, Obama can't use the poll to support the assertion that McCain is "going negative".


OBAMA: But when people suggest that I pal around with terrorists, then we're not talking about issues.

Comment: Obama is referring to the accusation -- made by Palin -- that he was "palling around with terrorists" by associating with Bill Ayers. (Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist group active in the 1970s.) [CS Monitor: Palin: Obama “palling around with terrorists” (October 5, 2008); YouTube: Palin accuses Obama of "Palling Around With Terrorist"]

I take it that, with this statement, Obama is denying that there is any truth to the claim that he is friendly with terrorists. Unfortunately, his statement -- taken literally -- doesn't express that point.

Taken literally, it sounds like he's saying that whether a presidential candidate is friendly with terrorists is not a legitimate issue, which is, of course, false. If a presidential candidate were on friendly terms with a terrorist, most voters would justifiably want to take that into account.

This error, though, can be overlooked by giving Obama's statement a charitable interpretation, and assuming that he simply chose the wrong words to express himself.


MCCAIN: The point is that I have repudiated every time someone's been out of line, whether they've been part of my campaign or not, and I will continue to do that.

Comment: As I noted above, this is false. It's an admirable standard to uphold, but McCain has not lived up to it, despite saying that he has.

He himself has made several "out of line" comments: for instance, his July 22, 2008, assertion that "Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign" [The Civil Debate Page: McCain Says Obama Would "Rather Lose a War in Order To Win a Political Campaign"].

And he put up an inadequate protest when a woman attending one of his own campaign events on November 12, 2007, referred to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) as "the bitch". [The Civil Debate Page: 2007; YouTube: "How Do We Beat the Bitch" Extended Version; NY Times: Pointed Question Puts McCain in a Tight Spot (November 14, 2007)]

Again, while it's nice when people support this higher standard in the abstract, it would be better if they lived up to it in actual circumstances. McCain hasn't.


OBAMA: What I think is most important is that we recognize that to solve the key problems that we're facing, if we're going to solve two wars, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, if we can -- if we're going to focus on lifting wages that have declined over the last eight years and create jobs here in America, then Democrats, independents and Republicans, we're going to have to be able to work together. And what is important is making sure that we disagree without being disagreeable. And it means that we can have tough, vigorous debates around issues. What we can't do, I think, is try to characterize each other as bad people. And that has been a culture in Washington that has been taking place for too long.

Comment: Obama makes a call to unify the country and be bipartisan, as well as to set a higher standard of political debate.

But he doesn't specify what kind of unity is achievable or desirable, as is typical of politicians who call for the country to be united.

Moreover, just like McCain, he supports setting a higher standard of debate in the abstract but has failed to live up to it in practice. For instance, he has repeatedly demonized and caricatured his opponents as "Social Darwinists".

And, like McCain, he has stood silent as his allies have been "disagreeable".


SCHIEFFER: So I'll begin by asking both of you this question, and I'll ask you to answer first, Senator Obama. Why would the country be better off if your running mate became president rather than his running mate?

Comment: Neither candidate actually compares the vice presidential nominees -- Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and Palin -- as Schieffer's question demands. Instead, McCain and Obama just praise their own running mates, respectively, which is not sufficient in order to judge which running mate is better.

In other words, this is yet another question that neither candidate answers.


OBAMA: After eight years of failed policies, he and I both agree that what we're going to have to do is to reprioritize.

Comment: Obama again makes the "failed policies" accusation against McCain and President Bush. But, again, Obama does not provide the detail necessary to substantiate such an accusation.


SCHIEFFER: [Referring to McCain's running mate, Palin] Do you think she's qualified to be president?

OBAMA: You know, I think it's -- that's going to be up to the American people. I think that, obviously, she's a capable politician who has, I think, excited the -- a base in the Republican Party.

Comment: Instead of answering the question, Obama employs the "not my decision" evasion.

To illustrate how Obama is avoiding the question, consider this: it's up to the American people to decide whether Obama or McCain's policies on Iraq, health care, taxes and everything else is better. Does that mean Obama can't (or won't) give his OWN opinion on any of that?

Of course not. Obama regularly gives his opinion on matters that the American people ultimately decide on, so there's no reason he can't also give his opinion on whether Palin is qualified to be president.


SCHIEFFER: Do you think Senator Biden is qualified?

MCCAIN: I think that Joe Biden is qualified in many respects.

Comment: It's not clear that McCain answers Schieffer's question regarding whether Biden is qualified to be president. Is McCain saying that Biden IS qualified to be president, and that there are many reasons he is? Or is he saying that Biden is qualified in some respects to be president, but not in others, and so is therefore NOT qualified overall?

McCain's statement is ambiguous. Unfortunately, he didn't clarify it, nor did Schieffer or Obama ask him to do so.


SCHIEFFER: Let's talk about energy and climate control. Every president since Nixon has said what both of you ... climate change, yes -- has said what both of you have said, and, that is, we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil. When Nixon said it, we imported from 17 to 34 percent of our foreign oil. Now, we're importing more than 60 percent. Would each of you give us a number, a specific number of how much you believe we can reduce our foreign oil imports during your first term?

Comment: Neither McCain nor Obama answers Sshieffer's question, which concerned how much oil imports could be reduced in ONE TERM (in other words, in four years).

McCain offers suggestions for ways to reduce oil imports, but some of them (for instance, building 45 nuclear plants) can't feasibly be accomplished in four years. And Obama chose to speak about reductions over a 10-year period.

So, both candidates evaded the question. And Schieffer didn't call them on it.


OBAMA: I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Senator McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement.

Comment: This is a caricature. If Obama wants to say that Bush and McCain have supported trade deals that should not have been supported, then he should say so and defend his assertion. But to say that Bush and McCain have the attitude that "any trade agreement is a good trade agreement" is false. It is a distortion which serves to deride Bush and McCain.


MCCAIN: So Senator Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, opposes the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The same country that's helping us try to stop the flow of drugs into our country that's killing young Americans. And also the country that just freed three Americans that will help us create jobs in America because they will be a market for our goods and products without having to pay -- without us having to pay the billions of dollars -- the billion dollars and more that we've already paid. Free trade with Colombia is something that's a no-brainer. But maybe you ought to travel down there and visit them and maybe you could understand it a lot better.

Comment: First, McCain derides Obama as being ignorant when he says the trade agreement is a "no-brainer". Contrary to how McCain describes it, the right judgment on the trade deal ISN'T obvious.

As with most political issues, there are several different moral considerations that are in competition with one another. In this case, there are the potential economic benefits and harms that could result to the U.S. and Colombia that are involved in any trade deal. In addition, there are issues of whether the Colombian government is doing enough to protect labor leaders from violence: if not, then there is the further question of whether a trade deal with Colombia would make us implicitly supportive and complicit in that failure. It is NOT obvious how all these considerations add up. Contrary to McCain's assertion, there is certainly room for reasonable disagreement.

Second, McCain's admonition to Obama to "travel down there and visit them and maybe you could understand it a lot better" seems like a fallacious argument.

Is McCain arguing that, because he's been to Colombia and Obama hasn't, therefore he is right about the trade deal with Colombia and Obama is wrong? If so, then he is making an argument from authority, which is flawed reasoning. After all, there are people who, like McCain, have been to Colombia, but who oppose the trade agreement. Since both sides can't be right, the argument that "whoever went to Colombia is right about the trade deal" is clearly fallacious.

If McCain isn't making that argument, however, then it's not clear what point he IS trying to make.


SCHIEFFER: All right, let's go to a new topic, health care. Given the current economic situation, would either of you now favor controlling health care costs over expanding health care coverage?

Comment: Neither McCain nor Obama clearly answers the question.

Obama says "we've got to do both", but doesn't say which he would give priority to, which is what the question asked.

While McCain says "it really is the cost, the escalating costs of health care that are inflicting such pain on working families and people across this country", he doesn't clearly state whether he would choose to control costs over expanding health care coverage.


OBAMA: Very briefly. You all just heard my plan. If you've got an employer-based health care plan, you keep it. Now, under Senator McCain's plan there is a strong risk that people would lose their employer-based health care. That's the choice you'll have is having your employer no longer provide you health care. And don't take my word for it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which generally doesn't support a lot of Democrats, said that this plan could lead to the unraveling of the employer-based health care system.

Comment: Again, Obama uses the "even my opponents agree" fallacy, this time in attempting to criticize McCain's health care plan. Just because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- which often opposes Obama -- agrees with Obama on health care doesn't mean that Obama must be correct on health care. It's not as if it would be impossible for both Obama and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to be wrong about something.


SCHIEFFER: All right. Let's stop there and go to another question. And this one goes to Senator McCain. Senator McCain, you believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Senator Obama, you believe it shouldn't. Could either of you ever nominate someone to the Supreme Court who disagrees with you on this issue?

Comment: McCain and Obama each talked about how they wouldn't impose a "litmus test", but neither of them clearly stated whether they would nominate someone who disagreed with them on Roe v. Wade.


OBAMA: And I also have to disagree on Senator McCain's record when it comes to college accessibility and affordability. Recently his key economic adviser was asked about why he didn't seem to have some specific programs to help young people go to college and the response was, well, you know, we can't give money to every interest group that comes along. I don't think America's youth are interest groups, I think they're our future.

Comment: Obama objects to the McCain campaign calling college students "interest groups", which I take to mean the same as "special interests". Obama does nothing to explain, however, what an "interest group" is, why they are bad, and why college students shouldn't be considered to be one.

Obama himself -- along with lots of other politicians, including McCain -- frequently criticizes special interest groups, but without defining what they are or defending his negative opinion of them. Without this information, on what basis are we to agree with Obama (and the McCain campaign) that special interests are bad? And how are we to assess Obama's claim that college students AREN'T a special interest group?


MCCAIN: I have a record of reform, and taking on my party, the other party, the special interests, whether it be an HMO Patients' Bill of Rights, or trying to clean up the campaign finance system in -- in this country, or whether it be establishment of a 9/11 Commission, I have a long record of it.

Comment: McCain praises his own defiance of special interests, but without explaining why that's a good thing.

Also, McCain again touts his status as a maverick, but without explaining why THAT'S a good thing, either.


OBAMA: The policies of the last eight years and -- and Washington's unwillingness to tackle the tough problems for decades has left us in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And that's why the biggest risk we could take right now is to adopt the same failed policies and the same failed politics that we've seen over the last eight years and somehow expect a different result.

Comment: Again, Obama accuses McCain and Bush of "failed policies", but does nothing to substantiate the accusation.

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