Moderator Jim Lehrer. His hobby is asking
Honourable Mention for Mentioning of Honours--and Other Empty Gestures
Moderator Jim Lehrer, the forces of random probability and natural selection bless him, tried his hardest, but both candidates, like the oak growing by the river, they shall not be moved. When asked what changes their administrations would make following the $700 billion USD bail out of Wall Street (on top of $500 billion USD in guarantees to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, $85 billion USD to AIG, and lots of massaging for the takeovers of Bear Sterns and Washington Mutual. Then there's the $560 billion USD (so far) in the Iraq war--all yet to be paid), both candidates took blood oaths to make sharp reductions in the Department of Unspecified Deadwood. Other than that, Senator Obama waxed eloquently on the importance of health care, education, development of alternative energy sources, and tax relief for families making less than $225,000 USD a year to pay for the high cost of energy (all excellent in points--had the question been about the high cost of energy, tax cuts for families making less than $225,000 USD a year, development of alternative energy sources, education, or even health care. But it wasn't.). Senator McCain made broad sweeping gestures with his pen, bragging on how he would use his veto super power against out of control spending (viewers watching with the sound off may have wondered why Mr. Lehr asked which candidate had the best impression of Zorro).
Senator McCain did offer one specific suggestion: an across the board spending freeze--except for military spending, entitlements, and veterans' benefits. That was the night's comic highpoint. After adding up the above mentioned federal hand outs, interest payments on the existing federal debt, 'entitlements,' and 'military spending,' a McCain administration might be left slashing the budget for Federal Allocation of Paperclips & Misc Paper Fasteners, Other Than Staples--but not much else.
Both candidates' responses were shameful, and frankly dishonest. Each candidate dusted off penny ante examples of how their personal intervention on some specific program saved some large sounding amount of money, that is actually peanuts compared to the budget numbers. Senator McCain dusted off his old saw about the $3 million USD the US Geological Survey allocated to study grizzly bear DNA, and
Ms. Ingrid Bergman. She was not present for the debate. But if she had, she would have been candid about how the Wall Street bail out would limit a Bergman Administration.
how he doesn't know if that's a paternity issue or a criminal issue. Ho ho ho (it's actually a 'paternity' issue, whether the bear should be covered by the endangered species act). That little ditty has been in Senator McCain's bag of tricks so long, he's probably spent more than $3 million just in the telling.
For individual voters and game shows, $3 million USD is lots of money. It's not. Even under the most conservative estimates, the United States spends $15 billion USD a month on the Iraq War. Assuming a thirty day month, $3 million will pay for just over eight and half minutes of the Iraq War. How big is the federal budget? On September 28 2008, the US Congress passed and sent to President Bush a budget of $634 billion USD, to fund the government for four months--through the end of January 2009--and that does not include payments for any of the above bail outs. For Senator McCain to repeatedly highlight a $3 million expense, as if that was the source of our budgetary woes, is ridiculous. If Senator McCain and his busy veto pen thinks nixing $3 million programs will balance the budget--well, he's going to need to find over 5,000 of them, just to pay for one month of a war that's been going on for over five years. On the other hand, if Senator McCain can eliminate a mere 187,000 programs at $3 million per--that would pay for the Iraq War!
In terms of differences between the candidates, Senator McCain insisted he would cut taxes more than Senator Obama, but was not specific regarding renewing President Bush's steep tax cuts for the top two percent of taxpayers. Senator Obama won some credibility by insisting that not EVERYONE could get a tax cut--but more than lost it by insisting that 95% of the population (his figure) COULD get a tax cut. Other than that, the candidates' platitudes on the economy were interchangeable.
Guess Who Supports This Issue--It's Easy and Fun!
A. Offshore Oil Drilling
Rather than repeat Mr. Thomas Friedman's arguments as to why Drill Baby Drill is not just mistaken, but idiotic, I urge you to read his columns at nytimes.com. Nevertheless, both candidates supported offshore oil drilling.
B. Nuclear Power
Senator McCain stressed how he was way more in favor of building nuclear reactors than Senator Obama, but for all of Senator Obama's half-hearted reservations, Senator Obama still supported more reactors. Senator Obama did express concern about where nuclear waste should be stored, mentioned the controversy over the proposed facility in Yucca Mountain Nevada. Senator McCain had no such reservations, but made no mention where waste should be stored.
Senator Barack Obama. He's not a Republican--but he frequently plays one on TV.
There are three problems with nuclear energy, and both candidates are well aware of them. First and foremost, there is no permanent storage facility for nuclear waste. The closest we have is a proposed storage site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The enabling legislation to complete this facility is affectionately known as the 'Screw Nevada' bill. Residents of the Silver State remain skeptical this nuclear trash can will in fact safely store the most toxic substances on earth for the projected 10,000 years the waste will remain harmful, and that there is no danger in trucking waste from all over the lower 48 to southern Nevada. If Senator McCain is sincere is his strong implication that we need nuclear power now, and we cannot wait for a permanent facility, then he needs to do one of two things. Either he must endorse the Screw Nevada bill, and push for completion of Yucca Mountain; or he must say where else a facility should be built, what needs to be done to complete that facility, and how waste can be safely stored until completion. Senator McCain's unspecified assertion that we are already safely storing waste, or that 'we'll find a way' is disingenuous.
Senator Obama, on the other hand, hardly scores better. He gets no points for mentioning the Yucca Mountain controversy. He only mentioned it as a controversy, without taking a position. In fact, Senator Obama gets negative points by trying to have it both ways: he's solidly *for* nuclear power--but maybe he's *against* nuclear power (kind of), because there is no permanent storage facility.
The second problem with nuclear power is the tremendous start up costs. Nuclear reactors generate electricity the same way coal-fired reactors do. Both boil water, and the resulting steam spins a generator, and out pops electricity. The difference is in how the water is heated: the former uses heat from a nuclear reaction, while the latter burns coal. Regardless of how much water is boiled or electricity generated, no nuclear reactor has generated enough money to pay for the cost of its construction and operation (nevermind storage costs of waste). Neither a McCain nor Obama administration will be in a position to spread economic largess to build enough of these economic rat holes to make a difference in America's energy picture. However, Senator McCain gets a special markdown, for the ever popular and always irresponsible crowing of 'job creation'--as if building nuclear power plants were a New Deal era Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.
Finally, there is the problem of lost opportunity costs. Both candidates paid lip service to the holy grail of 'alternative energy sources' in the same wistful tones Ronald Coleman used to describe Shangri-la in Lost Horizon. But anything more specific than the obligatory invocation of 'wind, solar, geothermal, biodiesel, and other sources' would wait until another day. Looking at where the United States will get the best use out of its energy dollars, investments in those technologies and even mass transit would be far more effective than another nuclear reactor.
On the issue of energy, Senator McCain did win extra points for specifically opposing continued subsidies for ethanol production ('Go for Huckabee, will ya? Well, SCREW YOU Iowa!'). I don't know whether cutting those subsidies is a good idea or not--but it was an point of difference between the two--maybe. Senator Obama did not take a position on ethanol production.
C. 'Clean' Coal
Both candidates love coal, and consider something called 'clean coal' an 'alternative energy.' Because burning coal predates even burning oil, I am curious how burning coal is an 'alternative.' More importantly, coal fired power plants do tremendous environmental damage, as sources of both carbon dioxide and acid rain--regardless of how 'clean' the coal is.
I cannot help but rank the 'clean' in clean coal in the same category as the 'fruit' in Froot Loops.
D. Missile Defense
The judges were divided on this issue, as to whether the candidates were deluding themselves or if they were simply pandering. Ultimately, we decided it did not matter, because either way both candidates were marked down.
Both candidates supported the $60 plus billion USD program building anti-missile systems in Poland (and even expanding the program at additional cost), to protect against 'rogue states.' Both candidates also gave the impression that such a system would be effective. Senator McCain even boasted that he supported President Reagan's proposed SDI system, 'even before we knew whether it would work.' Well, anti-ballistic missile systems (ABM) do not work for two reasons. First, we cannot hit the proverbial bullet with a bullet. The technology does not exist. Both candidates disgraced themselves by leaving the impression that technology does exist, and can protect against missile attacks. Second, and more importantly, even if and when we are able to hit a bullet with a bullet, those bullets will not disappear. During the 1970s debates over the ABM Treaty (broken by President George W. Bush), one of the most persuasive arguments against ABM Systems (and in favor of the Treaty) was that the people behind the 'missile shield' would die if the ABM missiles missed--but would still die from the resulting explosions if the ABM missiles did hit their targets.
Given the weak economic position we were in prior to this current real estate, banking, and Wall Street collapse, the fact both candidates still endorsed these rat-hole systems is a disservice to the country.
However, both candidates did score ahead of President Bush in their Chicken Little warnings about Rogue States. President Bush prefers to leave the identity of his Rogues unspecified, in that maybe someday, somewhere, someone will suddenly jump out of Zeus's forehead, fully armed with intercontinental ballistic missile systems, ready for battle. In contrast, both Senators Obama and McCain agreed on the boogeyman: not Russia, India, or Pakistan (who actually HAVE both atomic bombs and missiles), but instead pointed to Iran and North Korea. Unfortunately, they both lose points, because while insisting we need to live in fear and trembling of North Korea, both also acknowledged that North Korea could hardly generate electricity and was wholly unable to feed its own people. Senator McCain even mentioned on average, North Koreans were three inches shorter than their Southern counterparts, due to malnutrition. Neither mentioned that during North Korea's bomb 'test,' the yield of the explosion was substantially smaller than what should have resulted from a working atomic bomb, creating doubt that they actually have such a weapon--let alone the ability to place it on a missile.
As for Iran, both candidates joined the Bush White House assumption that Iran was actively building an atomic bomb, and neither mentioned the recent CIA report to the contrary. Neither also mentioned that Iran--like North Korea--is unable to feed its own people, and despite having one of the world's largest oil reserves, they cannot produce enough gasoline for domestic use.
If a Presidential candidate wants me to lie awake at night, shaking with fear, they need more than the spectre of two of the most dysfunctional governments on the planet--one even being one of the poorest.
E. Invading Pakistan to Get Bad Guys
This point is a little more subtle. Senator Obama said several times that we need to find and kill Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11 2001 attacks, as well as leaders of the Taliban and anti-American forces in Afghanistan. If the United States knew where these bad guys were--even if it was inside of Pakistan--we should go kill them. Senator McCain was appalled, and expressed indignation that a US President would ever say anything like that. Moreover, the fact that Senator Obama said something like that out loud was proof of Senator Obama's inexperience and naivety.
Now, you could say that I agree with Senator McCain: I think violating Pakistan's territorial integrality to kill people death-squad style is irresponsible--but you'd be wrong. Senator McCain thinks invading Pakistan (or anyone else, for that matter) to kill people he does not like is a great idea. What Senator McCain is vehemently against is saying so OUT LOUD.
Ostensively, such operations should be kept secret--which leads to the logical question of 'secret from whom?' Certainly not secret from the Pakistanis (or whoever else is invaded). Buildings blowing up all around is a dead give-away. No, the only ones left in the dark are the American people. Senator McCain wants the freedom to blow up and kill all the people he wants, while still preserving Americans self-delusion that we don't blow up and kill people. Senator McCain wants to make sure that Americans still have no idea why 'they' (unspecified) hate us.
Both candidates lose points for naive military adventurism, but Senator McCain gets a severe mark down both for intellectual dishonesty and wanting to keep Americans the dumbest people in the solar system.
F. Georgia: Capital of the Universe!
Both Senators had a spirited pander off, to see who could say the bestest and nicest things about Georgian President Saakashvili (I scored it a tie). Not surprisingly, both strongly condemned Russia and Vladimir Putin; insisted the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should remain part of Georgia; wanted Georgia, the Ukraine, and pretty much anyone else not named 'Russia' to join NATO; wanted Russia to obey the terms of the truce--if not withdraw from Georgia completely; the United States should send money to rebuild Georgia's infrastructure; and Russia was not going to get away with bullying its neighbors--not on President McCain or President Obama's watch!
At this point, I also declared a tie for the 'Blowing Smoke Up Your Ass' award. What, pray tell, would the United States really do if Russia did something to Georgia that we did not like? Launch an amphibious invasion of the Kamchatka Peninsula? Air strikes on the Crimean winter homes of the Russian elite? Call for a worldwide boycott of stacking dolls?
This is what I wanted to hear about Georgia: The Russian invasion was certainly bad, but to think there is anything the United States can do besides symbolic and meaningless gestures is delusional. Georgia should not be a member of NATO, because Russia would not tolerate that any more than we would tolerate Mexico or Quebec joining the Warsaw Pact.
Ms. Sophia Loren. While not a candidate for Vice President, she knows a lot about Iraq--mainly because Italy is much closer to Iraq then either Arizona or Illinois.
Right now, United States is no position to condemn anyone for invading another nation in violation of the UN Charter, until we get our own house in order about how we violated the UN Charter by invading Iraq. Rightly or wrongly, the rest of the world will just dismiss us as hypocrites. Nor can the United States glibly insist that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Georgian territory, and should not be autonomous regions, after the United States's strong support of Kosovo's independence from Serbia.
The only effective action the United States can do is to take is take a backseat to the European Union, supporting their efforts to bring Russia to heel, and rebuild our standing in the United Nations, helping to broker a resolution through that body. To do anything else would be pointless grandstanding, in an effort to pander only to American voters.
Next, I'd mention New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's article about his pleasant surprise on seeing a headline about $1 billion USD going to rebuild Georgia's crumbling infrastructure--followed by his biting disappointment that it was Tibilisi and not Atlanta.
And I'd also point out that Mr. Putin was now the Prime Minister, and even if you believe Mr. Putin is still pulling the strings, you will not get anywhere if you don't even acknowledge Mr. Dmitry Medvedev, the current President.
G. We Love You Henry!
There was a meaningless dust up about Henry Kissinger, of all people, but the bottom line was that both candidates cited the old War Criminal favorably, and as an authority for their positions.
While both candidates deserve praise for breaking with President Bush's foolish refusals to meet with people he does not like--like the Iranians--Senator McCain repeatedly tried to invent a difference between the two candidates, by insisting that Senator Obama wanted to have discussions with Iran 'without preconditions.' To do so, Senator McCain went on to say, would be an express endorsement of everything that Iranian President Ahmadinejad ever said--especially all that nasty rhetoric about Israel. That was just childish, and Senator McCain knows better.
Unless there are areas of disagreement to resolve, there is no reason for nations and their representatives to meet. Moreover, simply meeting with the representative of a nation--even the nation's chief executive officer--in no way endorses everything that leader says and believes. For example, did all the nations who engaged in the multi-party talks with North Korea agree that Kim Jong Il is a quasi-divine being? It's doubtful that prior to meeting, there was a 'precondition' that everyone could maintain their own opinion of the Beloved Leader's godhood.
More importantly, Senator McCain knows that meeting with President Ahmadinejad does not mean accepting Iran's views on Israel. If Senator McCain is sincete in his refusal to speak with any nation, absent a prior agreement that Israel can and will exist as a Jewish religious state, best of luck with the Muslim world. Does anyone think Iran's views of Israel are not shared by Saudi Arabia? How many of the Afghan Mujideen 'freedom fighters' supported Israel's right to exist? (Hint: It rhymes with 'zero'). Will a President McCain refuse to meet with Iraq Prime Minister Al-Maliki--or a representative of that government--until Iraq agrees that Israel has the right to exist?
That point of the debate was Senator McCain at his most dishonest.
H. Who Loves Ya, Veterans! Oh, and We're Sending More of You to Afghanistan
Both Senators openly pandered to veterans, trying to outdo each other in praise for their great job, successes on the ground, and their soulful sacrifices. I give Senator McCain the edge in effusiveness of pandering, almost getting misty in his insistence that veterans 'knew' a President McCain would 'take care of them.' However, I felt neither candidate did enough to separate themselves from the disgrace of President Bush's VA healthcare.
And in the 'Sucks to be You!' news, both candidates are sending lots more of Americans to Afghanistan.
I. There's No Home like Homeland Security
Sadly, both candidates endorsed the wrong-headed premise that we are fighting a global war on terror, and love the job that the Department of Father--WHOOPS! Homeland Security is doing. At a later date, I will explain my objections to the War on Terror model. Senator McCain made a quick 'both ways' play, at separate times crediting the federal government for Homeland Security and cursing the federal government for expanding by more than 40% during the Bush administration (I hate when that happens).
J. Torture is Bad
With all the strum und drang I'm bringing to my review, there was a singular high point. On his own initiative, Senator McCain said that we must stop torturing people. There were none of President Bush's disgraceful dodges about how 'we don't torture,' and 'torture is whatever the law says it is--and we don't do it.' Without breaking his arm while patting himself on the back or making a song about it, Senator McCain acknowledged we have engaged in torture, and that torture is wrong. Even Senator Obama took a moment to thank Senator McCain for Senator McCain's longstanding and vocal opposition on this basic violation of human rights.
You Say I-rack, I say IR-rack; You say Afghan, I say Afghani. I-rack! IR-rack! Afghan! Afghani! Let's Call the Whole Thing Even....
To the extent there was a material difference between the two Senators, it was over our twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After the dust settled, I had to give the edge to Senator Obama for two reasons. First, Senator Obama was more candid (ie honest) than Senator McCain, and more importantly, Senator McCain took a position that was largely indefensible.
I was pleasantly surprised that Senator Obama stuck to his guns with his strong insistence that the Iraq War was a mistake from the beginning, and the United States should never have invaded in March 2003: Iraq had no WMDs or nuclear program, Iraq had no connection with the September 11 attacks or with al Qaida, and Iraq was not supporting terrorist movements. While that certainly is all true, that position invites the question: 'Does that mean my child died in Iraq, pretty much for nothing?' Yes it does.
Senator John McCain, explaining how he coulda been a contenda.
I would have preferred Senator Obama draw an express admission of the above three points from Senator McCain, because a significant percentage of the Republican base STILL believes those assertions are true. Republicans even today are pimping on that misinformation, most recently during Governor Palin's good bye speech to her son's Iraq deployment. Senator McCain tried to dodge the issue, popping the trusty blue smoke of 'regardless of how we got in Iraq, the next President will have to consolidate our recent gains.' Senator McCain then stripped open his shirt, and carved the word SURGE! across his chest. Wow! The Senator hardly had the words to express his personal outrage that Senator Obama had the temerity to OPPOSE the surge when it was first proposed. Senator Obama, according to the GOP Nominee, does not understand the difference between a 'strategy' and a 'tactic.'
While both candidates were happy to proclaim the surge a success (McCain more so than Obama), and pledged undying love for General Petraeus (again, McCain more than Obama), I was very disappointed with Senator McCain's assertions. The basis for my view is from Mr. Steve Coll's article on General Petraeus, 'The General's Dilemma,' in the September 8 2008 edition of the New Yorker magazine.
As I wrote in my Un-Valentine to Bob Woodward ('All the President's Stooges'), what is identified as the 'surge' is actually two separate entities. First, there is the large influx of American troops. But second, there is also the complete change of strategy, from a heavy firepower and incarceration of massive numbers of Iraqi 'suspects,' to a counterinsurgency strategy. Under General Petraeus's direction, the US forces stopped "fighting" and became peacekeepers. Instead of large bases, Americans maintained a presence in Iraqi neighborhoods. That part of the surge strategy has been successful: many Iraqi neighborhoods have been pacified.
What Senator McCain did not mention, was the reason why the surge strategy was so controversial, and initially opposed by almost everyone. The problem the United States was having with Iraq was that the Maliki government was refusing address real problems. Years had passed, and yet there was no legislation on allocation of oil revenues (allowing easy misallocation of money based on ethnic grouping or corruption), no movement on opening the political process to the Sunni minority, and no efforts to deal with the tensions between the Kurds' and the Shiites' desire for regional autonomy--and the rest of the nation's desire to address endemic corruption facilitated by this 'autonomy.' The question was, how to get the Iraqi Parliament to step up? The clear majority (The Iraq Study Group, majorities in Congress, Ms. Condeleeza Rice and the State Department, the Pentagon, etc. etc.) took the position that if the Shiite government had not done it by now, they weren't going to do it as long as the United States was there, holding its hand. Therefore, the numbers of American troops needed to be reduced. Just in case the message is too subtle: Start governing Maliki government--or you're going to die.
The minority view (President Bush, General Petraeus, and yes: John McCain) was that the Maliki government could not govern, because the country was out of control. What was needed was more American troops to reduce the level of violence, and THEN the Parliament would rise to the occasion, making like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.
Right now, what General Petraeus is taking great pains to do is 1) NOT proclaim the surge a success, and 2) NOT appear to be taking sides in a partisan dispute. While important gains have been made in terms of reducing violence, those gains will be disappear, unless the Shiite government does what it has what it has consistently refused to do since Paul Bremer's Coalition of Provisional Authority (CPA) 'handed over' the keys to the kingdom. So far--it's not looking good.
General David Petraeus. He wants you to know he only GRINS like Howdy Doody. But there's no strings on him--Just like Pinocchio!
I am disappointed in both Senator McCain and General Petraeus, the former for using and abusing the latter's authority, and the latter for allowing Senator McCain to continue doing so.
The candidates also differed on where the next President needed to focus. Senator Obama (correctly) pointed to Afghanistan, because that's where al Qaida (with the Taliban) has their leadership and structural apparatus. Senator McCain, name dropper par excellence that he is, announced he, General Petraeus, and Osama bin Laden all agreed on one point: Iraq was the lodestone in America's war on terror. It's not.
My final point on the Iraq-Afghanistan issue, is another note of disappointment at Senator McCain. General Petraeus's promotion to Commander, US Central Command, will have him calling the shots in both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Senator McCain said (implying he got the straight dope from his close personal friend General Dave hisself) that General Petraeus will be using the same 'surge' tactics that were so successful in Iraq in Afghanistan--so in no time, Afghanistan will be all better. That was shameful. Senator McCain knows that the counterinsurgency tactics that General Petraeus implemented in Iraq are primarily geared for urban areas. Afghanistan presents a far different environment than Iraq: the terrain is more rugged, and there are far fewer urban centers. If (and it is a big if) the United States is going to succeed in Afghanistan, it will be with a different strategy. If you are interested in more information, I strongly suggest reading Mr. Michael Scheuer's 'Imperial Hubris' about the difficulties of war in Afghanistan.
. . . And the Winner is:
What do we know about Senators McCain and Obama that we did not know before the debates? For me, I was shocked that with a little trimming here and there, Senator Obama could pass for a moderate Republican. Outside of that revelation, a President Obama generally appears more likely to spend money on the 'butter' side of the guns v. butter continuum than a President McCain, but a President McCain would probably spend more overall than a President Obama, because a President McCain wouldn't hesitate to re-gild the gilded lilies at the Pentagon. Of course, a President Obama would not exactly be one to tell the Pentagon 'no.'
Senator Obama has a slight edge in telling the truth (very slight), but both candidates still promise the sun, the moon, the stars AND LOWER TAXES at the drop of a hat.
On the other hand, at this debate Civil Discourse was a clear winner. Even the few times when the candidates interrupted each other, or mumbled 'That's not true!,' there weren't any of the bald-faced lies or blinding personality attacks made popular by George W. Bush.
Losers, though, have to include the American people. The Presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush have driven the United States economy beyond bankruptcy. For us to pay our bills, the next four years will really hurt. Heck, it's going to hurt even if we DON'T pay our bills. What we need is a candidate who will take off the rose coloured glasses, and stop telling us we CAN have everything--we deserve everything!
Still, the big winner was the Military-Industrial Complex. They always win. What else could you expect in a contest between two people able to each raise over $100 million USD in private funds? But that's another rant.
Ms. Elizabeth Taylor. She is standing in for the United States Military-Industrial Complex.