Friday, September 26, 2008

The First Debate

NYT Editorial

The first presidential debate could not have come at a better time. We were afraid that the serious question of picking a new president in a time of peril, at home and abroad, was going to disappear in a fog of sophomoric attack ads, substance-free shouting about change and patriotism, and unrelenting political posturing.

The debate was generally a relief from the campaign’s nastiness. Both John McCain and Barack Obama worked to strike a civil tone, despite the occasional barbs that candidates practice in front of their mirrors, hoping they will stick as a sound bite.

Americans could see some clear differences begin to emerge between the candidates on correcting the regulatory disasters that led to the Wall Street crisis, on taxes and how to handle the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama clearly dominated the economic portion of the debate, arguing that the Wall Street disaster was the fault of the Bush administration’s anti-regulation, pro-corporate culture. He called for a major overhaul of the financial regulatory system and the need to help ordinary Americans, as well as bankers.

Mr. McCain stuck to his talking points, railing against greed and corruption. He showed little sign that he understood the fundamental failures in government illuminated by the market crisis.

Mr. Obama said that he would begin to address the country’s deep deficit by raising taxes on the wealthy, while cutting them for the vast majority of American workers. He promised he would make universal health care a priority. But he dodged the question of what programs he would have to sacrifice to help foot the bailout’s $700 billion price tag.

Mr. McCain dodged the same question with equal energy. And he clung to his argument that cutting Congressional earmarks, which amount to about only $18 billion a year, and reducing waste, fraud and abuse would solve most of the country’s economic problems — and allow him to continue President Bush’s catastrophic tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans.

Despite the more civil tone, as we watched Mr. McCain, it was impossible to forget the ludicrous spectacle that he put on this week. With the markets teetering on the edge and Washington desperately trying to find a bipartisan solution, Mr. McCain tried to make the biggest question whether he was actually going to show up for Friday’s debate.

All Mr. McCain achieved by pretending to “suspend” his campaign so he could ride to the rescue of Washington was to remind the nation that he has never had a leader’s voice in Congress on economic issues.

During the debate, Mr. McCain struggled to separate himself from the deeply unpopular Mr. Bush, saying he opposed the president on global warming and on the conduct of the war in Iraq. But he couldn’t answer Mr. Obama’s charge that he supported Mr. Bush on economic policy, because he generally voted with the administration on budget issues. Mr. McCain long ago abandoned his opposition to Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, which he embraced in order to win the Republican nomination.

When the discussion turned to Iraq, it was profoundly disturbing to see that Mr. McCain seems to have learned nothing from the disastrous war. He talked about progress in Iraq, which is indisputable, and his support for the troop surge that has brought down violence. But Mr. McCain still was talking about winning, rather than how he was going to plan a necessary and responsible exit. And he steadfastly refused to acknowledge that the decision to invade Iraq was an enormous mistake.

Mr. Obama offered no details on how he plans to get out of Iraq, but he offered an important truth when he said that the United States could never win the war in Afghanistan as long as it is tied down in Iraq.

We didn’t hear nearly as much detail on any of these important issues as we would have liked. But the debate was a move toward a serious discussion of this country’s many problems. Americans need to hear more of that, and less of the tactical sparring, before going to the polls.

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