Liveblogging: the presidential debate

UPDATE: For the post-debate spin from both camps


Here we go. It’s supposed to be about foreign policy, McCain’s strong suit. Neither one is a great debater, but McCain is capable of being far more crisp and to the point than Obama.

1) Jim Lehrer is asking where do you stand on the financial plan?

Obama first: After a long introduction, he rushes to fit in all his points.

1) Make sure we’ve got oversight over this process

2) Make sure taxpayers have possibilities of getting money back and gains

3) Make sure that noneof the money goes to “pad CEO bankaccounts or golden parachutes”

4) Protect homeowners. (whatever that means

This is a final verdict on 8 years of failed economic policies promoted by President Bush and supported by McCain (…) it hasn’t worked.

Now McCain: He makes a bipartisan nod to Ted Kennedy who he says is in the hospital. Says he feels good about the bipartisan work on the bailout

He says he wants accountability, oversight, option for loans to failing business

“This isn’t the beginning of the end of this crisis… this is the end of the beginning…. we’ve got a lot of work to do…”

So far, not much disagreement.

Question 2: Are you in favor of this plan?

Obama: says he hasn’t seen the details yet. Shifts debate to how we got into this mess..

We are going to have to intervene… but we have to ask ourselves how we shredded so many regulations… this has to do with an economic philosophy that regulation is always bad.

McCain says he will vote for the package too. “Sure.”

“A lot of us saw this train wreck coming.”

“Greed is rewarded, excess is rewarded,… ‘People will beheld accountable in my administration.”

Obama: We need more responsibility but not just when there is a crisis.

“We’ve had years where the reining economic philosophy has been what is good for Wall Street, not jsut for Main Street.”

McCain is now waxing poetic about the American worker…

Bottom line: it’s a draw. Obama spoke forcefully about the problems of main street and cast the Republicans as the party of Wall Street. McCain connected his controversial comments calling for the resignation of the chairman of the SEC with a commitment to holding administration officials accountable (an implied contrast with the Bush administration.)


McCain holds up a pen and pledges to veto every single spending bill.

Underlining a “fundamental difference”: He has asked for 932 million of ear-marked pork barrel spending. Nearly a million dollars for every day he’s been in the Senate. (McCain urges people to check out the website of Citizens for Government Waste. The website is now crashing.)

Obama agrees with McCain that earmarks are abused. Says he suspended his requests until the system is fixed up. But they account for $18 billion in the budget. McCain is proposing $300 billion in tax cuts to wealthiest individuals and corporation.

McCain counters that he only suspended his earmarks once he was running for president.

Bottom line: earmark reform v. tax policies. Both make a clear case.


John McCain: I want to cut business tax.


I was just in a swing state talking to undecided voters. One point that came up several times was their perception that Obama was not patriotic and that he “doesn’t wear a flag pin.” Here is Obama wearing the flag pin now, and McCain not wearing it.


McCain, who was mocked for joking that “rich” starts at $5 million. He asks what Obama’s definition of rich.

Obama handles that one: 95% of you will get a tax cut. If you make less than $250K a year, you won’t see a dime of tax increase


Obama is going after McCain for planning to tax health care benefits.


Lehrer: What are you going to have to give up in terms of priorities as a result of the $700 bilion bailout.

Obama: “A range of things are going to have to be delayed. We don’t know what your revenues are going to be.” Says his priorities will be energy independence, health care system reform, make college affordable, invest in science & technology, infrastructure including energy grid.

McCain: “No matter what, we’ve got to cut spending. We’ve let the size of government get out of control.”

“It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.”

Says he’d eliminate ethanol subsidies. (Afterall, Obama is leading in Iowa.) Talks about killing corrupt military contracts. “We’ll have to scrub every agency of government.

Lehrer suggests that none of them are proposing any major changes.


Still waiting to hear a question about national security at this national security debate.


Obama: “John mentions me being wildly liberal.. mostly that’s just me opposing George Bush’s wrong-headed policies…”


Lehrer is still pushing for more detail on what they’d have to abandon due to the $700 billion bailout.

McCain offers a spending freeze on everything but veterans, national defense…

Obama: “You’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel. .. I want to increase early childhood education.”


I wonder whether McCain has talked about the spending freeze before. I have not heard it. Did he just make that up on the spot? Is that making policy on the fly? He says it’s something “we should consider” — so I’m not sure what amount of commitment that entails.


Obama calls McCain on agreeing with Bush 90% of the time, and voting for most of his budgets…

McCain “It’s well known that I have not been elected Miss Congeniality with the administration…”

He just mentioned a list of things he has opposed the president on… including “the torture of prisoners.” It would be interesting to have Lehrer push him on that and whether his view that waterboarding is torture implies war crimes…


Obama is trying to make it about who was right about going into Iraq. McCain is trying to make it about who was right about the surge. Obama says the surge “was a tactic was a tactic to contain the damage” of the previous Iraq war. Obama is on the offense: “You said it was going to be quick and easy, that we knew where the WMD were, that we would be greeted as liberators…”

McCain: “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy…”

McCain accuses Obama of voting against funding the troops. Obama says McCain opposed funding in legislation with a timetable for withdrawal, while Obama opposed it in legislation that did not include a timetable for withdrawal.

Obama: We should end this war responsibly, end it in phases. In 16 months, we should be able to reduce troops…. (That sounds more modest than his previous statements about withdrawal.)


Lehrer asks whether more troops to be sent to Afghanistan:

Obama: Yes, I think we need more troops. We have to do it as quickly as possible… the situation is getting worse not better. .. I would send 2-3 additional brigades.

McCain: I won’t repeat the mistake that I regret enormously… after we helped drive Russians out of Afghanistan, we washed our hands of the region….

“I’m not prepared to cut off aid to Pakistan, so I’m not prepared to threaten it…” as Obama has suggested. Calls Obama on threatening strikes against Pakistan. Says Obama doesn’t understand that they need a new strategy for Afghanistan, and get cooperation of the people against the Taliban.

Obama isn’t taking it. He retorts that he wasn’t talking about attacking Pakistan. What he said is if Pakistan had Osama bin Laden in their strike, and Pakistan won’t take him out, then the US will.

Obama pivots back to the offense and calls McCain on threatening extinction for North Korea and singing songs about bombing Iran…


McCain: Responds to dig about bombing Iran by saying he was around back when Reagan wanted to send troops to Lebanon and voted against it. Now he’s recounting every use of force vote he’s taken. “I have a record of being involved in these national security issues…” Now he’s talking about wearing the bracelet of a fallen soldier, to make sure that the young man’s life wasn’t lost in vain in Iraq. “We don’t want defeat.” It’s a story he tells at every campaign stop.


Obama says he has a fallen soldier’s bracelet too.


Obama accuses McCain of an inconsistent commitment to Afghanistan, and of saying they could “muddle through” there. McCain is now calling Obama on not traveling to Afghanistan. He’s starting to sound testy, a bit of sarcasm in his voice.


Lehrer: What is your reading of the threat from Iran?

McCain: If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it’s an existential threat to Israel and a threat to the region. He is arguing for a “league of democracies” to impose severe sanctions on Iran.

Obama: Notes that the war in Iraq has strengthened Iran and Iranian influence. “We cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran. It would be a game changer.” It would be a threat to Israel and would set up an arms race in Middle East. Calls for tough, direct diplomacy with Iran. “This notion that we are punishing people by not talking to them hasn’t worked.”

McCain: struggling to pronounce Ahmadenijad, criticizes Obama for having said he’d sit down without preconditions with the Iran leader and others, giving them a “platform for propaganda.” I’ll sit down with anybody but there have got to be preconditions.

Obama: Says he would not condition talks on Iran doing exactly what US wants. Notes that even Bush administration has begun exploring talks with Iran, and that Henry Kissinger agrees with him.

McCain: Says Kissinger did not say there should be face-to-face meetings. Says that if you sit down with “someone who has called Israel a stinking corpse, you legitimize those comments.”

McCain is wiping the floor with Obama over the comments now. If Ahmadinejad says I’m going to wipe Israel off the map, would he say, no you’re not? He’s mocking him and chuckling. This is in large part for the benefit of Jewish voters in Florida.


Lehrer asked about Russia:

Obama says we can’t base relationship on looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul. McCain criticizes Obama’s response to the Russian conflict with Georgia in which he said both sides should show restraint. Pledges strong support for Ukraine. Obama circles the discussion on Russia and its petro-dollar funded military adventures back to alternative energy.

McCain takes that as his cue to push offshore drilling.


Lehrer asks what is the likelihood of another 9/11?

McCain: Much less than the day after 9/11, but still a “long way to go.” Touts his role in pushing for a 9/11 administration against the wishes of the Bush administration.

Obama: We are safer in some ways: airport security, etc. Need to do more in terms of chemical sites, transit, and ports. Touts his work on nuclear non-proliferation. Says he supports missile defense. Notes that we are “less respected now”. Gives McCain “great credit now on the torture issue.”

McCain: Senator Obama doesn’t get it. If we fail in Iraq, that encourages Al Qaeda. … “We’ve seen this stubbornness


Closing points: McCain gets in: “I don’t need any on-the-job training…”

Obama gets in: “My father came from Kenya. That’s where I get my name…”

McCain adds: “When I came home from prison,….”


Overall: A substantive debate. McCain did not pay any price for threatening to pull out. Foreign policy was his area of strength and it showed. He emphasized his many years of experience effectively. BMcCain was more condescending… mentioning several times that Obama just “doesn’t understand.” But Obama, who was an uneven debater in the primaries, was surprisingly aggressive and crisp in this one. His remarks were focused and structured, and he was able to pivot quickly from defense to offense when he came under attack.

I will be interested to see whether this debate moves the polls at all. Those who agree with McCain’s positions will be quite satisfied with how well he made his case. Same thing for supporters of Obama. For undecided voters, it’s hard to see that either one walks away a clear winner overall.


Final thought: Now there is the inevitable debate on “who won.” (Early pundits are saying Obama was strongest on economic issues and McCain was stronger on foreign policy. Several are also noting how frequently Obama said “I agree with McCain” while McCain frequently said “Obama doesn’t understand.”) But the debates are not just about judging points. I’ve spent several days this week talking to undecided voters and many were looking forward to the debate to learn more about the candidates’ positions so they can match them against their own. On that score, this was a good debate: their policy differences were laid out clearly. I’m looking forward to seeing tracking polls.

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