Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Analysis: October 7th Presidential Debate between John McCain and Barack Obama in Tennessee

Following are excerpts of the presidential debate [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, October 7, 2008] between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) in Nashville, Tennessee, hosted and moderated by Tom Brokaw of NBC:

OBAMA: And I believe this is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Sen. McCain, that essentially said that we should strip away regulations, consumer protections, let the market run wild, and prosperity would rain down on all of us.

Comment: As he did in the previous debate, Obama is making the "failed policies" accusation against President George W. Bush and McCain (and, once more, Republicans more generally), but without going into the detail necessary to substantiate such an accusation.

Obama is also caricaturing their economic policy, saying they want to "strip away" regulations and consumer protections. Granted, Republicans might not support all the regulations and consumer protections that Obama thinks should be in place. But it's a caricature to say that Republicans want the market to "run wild" with no regulations or protections.

Obama wouldn't allow himself to be caricatured by his opponents as wanting to regulate people out of business: he shouldn't allow himself to caricature his opponents in the other direction.


OBAMA: You need somebody working for you and you've got to have somebody in Washington who is thinking about the middle class and not just those who can afford to hire lobbyists.

Comment: Obama is making a derisive reference to lobbyists and special interests. Why are lobbyists and special interests bad, though? Do they fail to represent legitimate interests among Americans? Obama needs to justify why we should look down on lobbyists and special interests.


MCCAIN: And you know, there were some of us that stood up two years ago and said we've got to enact legislation to fix this. We've got to stop this greed and excess. Meanwhile, the Democrats in the Senate and some -- and some members of Congress defended what Fannie and Freddie were doing. They resisted any change. Meanwhile, they were getting all kinds of money in campaign contributions. Sen. Obama was the second highest recipient of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac money in history -- in history.

Comment: McCain is criticizing Obama for receiving campaign contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But it's not clear what exactly he's accusing Obama of.

Is he saying that Obama accepted money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in return for defending them in the Senate? That would amount to accepting a bribe, which is a serious charge. If that is the accusation, then the burden of proof is on McCain to substantiate it. If he can't substantiate it, then he's making an unfair accusation against Obama and should retract it.

If that's not the accusation McCain is making, though, then what IS he saying? Why should we think less of Obama because he received money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Is this some sort of lobbyists and special interests complaint, or an ad hominem argument? What point is McCain trying to make?

If he can't explain what point he's making, then he hasn't given us a reason to think less of Obama (not concerning Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at least).


BROKAW: Sen. Obama, this is a question from you from Teresa Finch. Teresa?

FINCH: How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got -- got us into this global economic crisis?

Comment: If Finch's question is meant to imply that -- because the Republicans and Democrats got us into this mess, they can't fix it -- then she is committing the "can't fix your own mistakes" fallacy (even supposing that she's right that Republicans and Democrats caused the crisis, which is questionable). People frequently solve problems that they have caused.

Rather than disqualifying people as problem-solvers on the (inadequate) grounds that they are the ones who caused the problem (which, again, is arguable), it would instead be better to consider the question of what policy will fix this problem, leaving aside WHO is advocating it or offering to carry it out.

There is, though, another way that this question might be interpreted, that could avoid this unfair implication. What Finch might instead be saying is that the cause of this current financial crisis is the lack of discipline on the part of the two parties, say, a failure to exercise fiscal discipline and regulatory oversight, or a failure to carry out their duties.

This would be a different accusation, not obviously ad hominem in nature, and it would be more along the lines of questioning their character. That is, Finch's question could instead be suggesting that -- since the parties didn't exercise the discipline and attention to duty that would have prevented the crisis -- we have reason to question whether or not they'll have the discipline and attention to duty to carry out a solution.

Maybe this is what Finch is getting at. It's not clear, however, which makes it difficult to know how -- or even whether -- to answer Finch's question.


OBAMA: I think it's important just to remember a little bit of history. When George Bush came into office, we had surpluses. And now we have half-a-trillion-dollar deficit annually. When George Bush came into office, our debt -- national debt was around $5 trillion. It's now over $10 trillion. We've almost doubled it.

Comment: Obama is trying to blame Bush for the deficits by arguing that, because there were surpluses WHILE Clinton (the previous president) was president and deficits WHILE Bush has been president, therefore there were surpluses BECAUSE Clinton was president and there are deficits BECAUSE Bush is president.

But this is flawed reasoning, because correlation does not imply causation. He'll certainly need a better argument than this in order to sustain the "failed policy" accusation that he is trying to make.

After all, doesn't Congress also play some role in whether or not there are surpluses or deficits? Don't general economic circumstances -- some of which are beyond the power of the president -- also play a role? Obama needs to show that there were no other contributing factors.


MCCAIN: I have advocated and taken on the special interests, whether they be the big money people by reaching across the aisle and working with Sen. [Russ] Feingold [D-Wisconsin] on campaign finance reform, whether it being a variety of other issues, working with Sen. Lieberman on trying to address climate change. I have a clear record of bipartisanship. The situation today cries out for bipartisanship. ... I have a clear record of reaching across the aisle, whether it be Joe Lieberman or Russ Feingold or Ted Kennedy or others. That's my clear record.

Comment: McCain is saying he deserves praise for confronting special interests, but he doesn't explain what they are or why they need to be confronted.

He also says he deserves praise for bipartisanship and expresses a desire to unite the country, but he doesn't articulate what kind of unity and bipartisanship is both possible and desirable.


OBAMA: Now, when Sen. McCain is proposing tax cuts that would give the average Fortune 500 CEO an additional $700,000 in tax cuts, that's not sharing a burden.

Comment: This is false. If Fortune 500 CEOs were not paying ANY taxes, then they wouldn't be sharing the tax burden. Obama may think they're not sharing ENOUGH of the tax burden if they receive a $700,000 tax cut, but the only way they wouldn't be sharing it at all is if they were having their taxes cut to nothing.


BROKAW: How would you, as president, try to break those bad habits of too much debt and too much easy credit, specifically, across the board, for this country, not just at the federal level, but as a model for the rest of the country, as well?

Comment: McCain never answered this question. He criticized Obama's tax proposals, but he never addressed whether or how he would try to break the "bad habits" Brokaw asked about.


OBAMA: He wants to give average Fortune 500 CEO an additional $700,000 in tax cuts. That is not fair. And it doesn't work. Now, if we get our tax policies right so that they're good for the middle class, if we reverse the policies of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place and that Sen. McCain supported, then we are going to be in a position to deal with Social Security and deal with Medicare, because we will have a health care plan that actually works for you, reduces spending and costs over the long term, and Social Security that is stable and solvent for all Americans and not just some.

Comment: Obama is, again, making the "failed policies" accusation against Bush and McCain, again without defending it.

He is also making assertions about what constitutes fairness in tax policy, which is fine, but he needs to detail and defend those assertions. Fairness -- that is, justice, or giving people what they deserve -- is a complicated issue, and requires more attention than just saying "this isn't fair". Why isn't it fair? What other alternative would be fair, and why? What is the standard of fairness that he is appealing to?


MCCAIN: My friends, what we have to do with Medicare is have a commission, have the smartest people in America come together, come up with recommendations, and then, like the base-closing commission idea we had, then we should have Congress vote up or down. Let's not let them fool with it anymore. There's too much special interests and too many lobbyists working there. So let's have -- and let's have the American people say, "Fix it for us."

Comment: Again, McCain complains about lobbyists and special interests without specifying what they are and why they are bad.


OBAMA: One last point I want to make on energy. Sen. McCain talks a lot about drilling, and that's important, but we have three percent of the world's oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world's oil. So what that means is that we can't simply drill our way out of the problem. And we're not going to be able to deal with the climate crisis if our only solution is to use more fossil fuels that create global warming.

Comment: Obama -- like his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) in the vice presidential debate -- is making a "silver bullet" caricature.

McCain has proposed more drilling for oil to meet the country's energy needs, but Obama is making it sound like this is ALL McCain has proposed. When and where has McCain said that the country can "simply drill" its way out of its energy problems? Hasn't McCain also proposed nuclear, coal, and alternative energy initiatives?


MCCAIN: By the way, my friends, I know you grow a little weary with this back-and-forth. It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me.

Comment: Some have claimed that it was offensive for McCain to refer to Obama as "that one". For instance, on his show October, 8, 2008, talk show host Larry King asked Obama's wife, Michelle Obama, whether she was offended by it.

McCain's reference was a bit impersonal, but it's not obvious that it should be construed as offensive. (There are, after all, two candidates: this one and that one. And, along those lines, McCain would refer to himself as "this one".) Those -- like King -- who are suggesting that someone might take offense to this reference should explain why.


BROKAW: Next question for you, Sen. Obama, and it comes from the E section over here and it's from Lindsey Trella. Lindsey?

TRELLA: Senator, selling health care coverage in America as the marketable commodity has become a very profitable industry. Do you believe health care should be treated as a commodity?

Comment: It's not clear that either McCain or Obama answers this question. The question itself, though, is also unclear. A "commodity" in what sense? Is Trella asking whether or not health care coverage should be sold on the market (as opposed to being provided for free?)?

This lack of clarity in the question doesn't necessarily let McCain and Obama off the hook, though, as neither of them asked for the question to be clarified.


OBAMA: That is a fundamental difference that I have with Sen. McCain. He believes in deregulation in every circumstance. That's what we've been going through for the last eight years. It hasn't worked, and we need fundamental change.

Comment: Once more, Obama makes the "failed policies" assertion without giving substance to it.

And he caricatures McCain as being in favor of "deregulation in every circumstance", which is simply false.


BROKAW: Phil Elliott is over here in this section, and Phil Elliott has a question for Sen. McCain. Phil?

ELLIOTT: Yes. Sen. McCain, how will all the recent economic stress affect our nation's ability to act as a peacemaker in the world?

Comment: Again, it's not clear that either McCain or Obama answered this question. McCain talked about being careful in sending military forces into different areas, and Obama talked about the strains the intervention in Iraq was causing to the budget. But neither of them talked specifically about how the recent financial crisis would affect U.S. policy regarding peacekeepers and military intervention.


BROKAW: Sen. Obama, let me ask you if -- let’s see if we can establish tonight the Obama doctrine and the McCain doctrine for the use of United States combat forces in situations where there’s a humanitarian crisis, but it does not affect our national security. Take the Congo, where 4.5 million people have died since 1998, or take Rwanda in the earlier dreadful days, or Somalia. What is the Obama doctrine for use of force that the United States would send when we don’t have national security issues at stake?

Comment: Again, neither candidate answered this question, which was to lay out the standards under which the U.S. would use military force even when national security was not at stake.


BROKAW: This requires only a yes or a no. Ronald Reagan famously said that the Soviet Union was the evil empire. Do you think that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an evil empire?

Comment: It was not appropriate for Brokaw to pose this as a yes-or-no question, since either answer would have given a misleading impression of each candidates position.

To their credit, both McCain and Obama refused to answer with a simple "yes" or "no". McCain did a very good job of describing the pitfalls that would have presented:

"If I say yes, then that means that we're reigniting the old Cold War. If I say no, it ignores their behavior."


BROKAW: So we have to move along. Over in section A, Terry Shirey -- do I have that right, Terry?

SHIREY: Senator, as a retired Navy chief, my thoughts are often with those who serve our country. I know both candidates, both of you, expressed support for Israel. If, despite your best diplomatic efforts, Iran attacks Israel, would you be willing to commit U.S. troops in support and defense of Israel? Or would you wait on approval from the U.N. Security Council?

Comment: Obama talked about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and made it clear he would consider military options -- even without the consent of the U.N. Security Council -- to prevent it. But he never clearly answers the question of whether he would consider military options -- even without the consent of the U.N. Security Council -- if Iran attacked Israel (with or without nuclear weapons).

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