Monday, September 29, 2008

Breaking Down the Obama-McCain Debate

Nick Kristof elaborates on the “Impulsive, Impetuous, Impatient” McCain that quickly became evident during the debate.

As Mr. McCain demonstrated in Friday evening’s debate, he is a serious foreign policy thinker who has traveled widely, and he certainly showed vision and bipartisanship in helping to repair relations with Vietnam. But it’s equally clear that in recent years Mr. McCain has become impish cubed — impulsive, impetuous and impatient — and those are perilous qualities in a commander in chief.

Although he is frantically trying to distance himself from President Bush, Mr. McCain, by his own accounting, would be more Bushian in foreign policy than even Mr. Bush is now. While Mr. Bush has been forced to accept more sensible policies in his second term, Mr. McCain has become steadily more of a neocon in the cowboy role that Mr. Bush played in his first term, prone to solving problems with stealth bombers rather than United Nations resolutions.

Judging from Mr. McCain’s own positions, he might well revive a cold war with Russia and could start a hot war with Iran or North Korea. In those three hot spots, Mr. McCain could constitute a dangerous gamble for this country:

Iran seems determined to continue its uranium enrichment and will be vexing for any president. But Mr. Bush, under the influence of Bob Gates and Condoleezza Rice, has realized that the best hope is diplomacy and negotiation. In contrast, Mr. McCain denounces Barack Obama’s call for direct talks with Iranian leaders and speaks openly about the possibility of bombing Iranian nuclear sites.

“There’s only one thing worse than military action against Iran, and that is a nuclear-armed Iran,” Mr. McCain has told me and others, repeating the line regularly. That’s a nice sound bite, but it suggests that if Iran continues to enrich uranium he would feel obliged to launch airstrikes. And while Mr. McCain understands the lack of any effective military solution (we don’t even know exactly what to hit), he can sound cavalier about a new war. When a South Carolina man asked him about Iran, he responded by singing to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”: “Bomb, bomb,
bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.”

So if Iran continues its policies as most expect, we might well find ourselves under a McCain presidency headed toward our third war with a Muslim country. The result would be an Iranian nationalist backlash that would cement ayatollahs in place, as well as $200-a-barrel oil, open season on Americans in Iraq, and global fury at American unilateralism.

North Korea is one of the Bush administration’s greatest failures, and Mr. McCain seems intent on making it worse. For eight full years, the Clinton administration kept North Korea from obtaining plutonium to make a single nuclear weapon; on Mr. Bush’s watch, North Korea has obtained enough for a half dozen weapons and has conducted a nuclear test.

Even President Bush recognized the failure of his first term’s hard-line policy and abandoned it, instead pursuing negotiations and diplomatic solutions with North Korea. Mr. McCain fumes that this is accommodation and seems to prefer the first-term fist-waving that was emotionally satisfying but failed catastrophically.

A McCain administration would thus apparently mean no more diplomatic track with North Korea. The upshot would be North Korea’s restarting its nuclear weapon assembly line. In similar circumstances in 1994, Mr. McCain raised the prospect of military strikes on North Korea and suggested that war might be inevitable
(instead, President Clinton stopped plutonium production with a negotiated deal).

Russia underscores Mr. McCain’s penchant for risk-taking, theatrics and fulmination. Most striking, he wants to kick Russia out of the Group of 8. Mr. McCain’s lead-with-the-chin approach to Russia reflects the same pugnacity that resulted in obscenity-laced dust-ups with fellow Republican senators, but it’s less endearing when the risk is nuclear war. Do we really want to risk an exchange of nuclear warheads over Abkhazia or South Ossetia? The Spanish prime minister, José Zapatero, told me a few days ago that what he fears most under a McCain administration is a revival of the cold war with Russia.

In Friday’s debate, Mr. McCain was on his best behavior. But he did reiterate his suspicion of diplomacy with our enemies, and he has often shown that his instinct in a confrontation (whether with a colleague or a country) is the opposite of John Kennedy’s in the Cuban missile crisis; Mr. McCain responds to challenges by seeking to escalate, to fight.

All in all, it’s astonishing that Mr. McCain seems determined to return to Mr. Bush’s first-term policies that have been utterly discredited even within the administration. Judging from Mr. McCain’s own positions, on foreign policy he could well end up more Bush than Bush.
Meanwhile, EJ Dionne points out McCain’s missed opportunities during the debate, the only one with a focus on foreign affairs (his alleged turf):

September began as John McCain's month and ended as Barack Obama's. McCain's high-risk wagers aimed at shaking up the campaign turned into very bad investments. And Friday's debate eliminated McCain's best chance to deliver a knockout blow to an opponent whose most important asset may be his capacity for self-correction.

McCain is supposed to own the foreign policy issue -- and he should have owned Friday's debate. During their respective primary battles, McCain was a better debater than Obama, who could be hesitant, wordy and thrown off his stride.

But the Obama who showed up at Ole Miss was sharper and more concise than the man who frequently lost debates against his Democratic foes. He was also resolutely calm in standing his ground against McCain, whose condescension became a major talking point after the debate. If Al Gore suffered from his sighs during the 2000 debates, McCain will be remembered for his supercilious repetition of seven variations on "Senator Obama doesn't understand."

This gave special power to Obama's peroration about McCain's "wrong" judgments on going to war in Iraq. McCain's dismissal of Obama brought back memories of how advocates of the war arrogantly dismissed those who insisted (rightly, as it turned out) that the conflict would be far more difficult and costly than its architects suggested.

McCain's derisive approach may help explain why the instant polls gave Obama an edge in a debate that many pundits rated a tie -- and why women seemed especially inclined toward Obama. CNN's survey found that 59 percent of women rated Obama as having done better, with just 31 percent saying that of McCain.

An Obama adviser who was watching a "dial group" -- in which viewers turn a device to express their feelings about a debate's every moment -- said that whenever McCain lectured or attacked Obama, the Republican's ratings would drop, and the fall was especially steep among women. But if the debate was indeed a tie -- and McCain certainly looked informed and engaged once the discussion moved from economics to foreign affairs -- this would count as a net gain for Obama. A foreign policy discussion afforded McCain his best opportunity to aggravate doubts about his foe. That opportunity is now gone.

As for the first 40 minutes devoted to the economic crisis, Obama was more forceful in addressing public anxieties. He used the occasion to tout his middle-class tax cut that a large share of the electorate doesn't even know he's proposing. Obama's campaign quickly went on the air with an ad noting that McCain did not once mention the words "middle class" during the discussion.

Thus ends a month that began with such promise for McCain. His choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate at the end of August created a fortnight of excitement among Republican loyalists who were less than enthusiastic about McCain. Some said Palin would also enhance his appeal to female voters and help him recast his candidacy as a maverick's crusade.

But it was a reckless choice. Palin has proved herself to be spectacularly unprepared for a national campaign and embarrassingly inarticulate and unreflective. She is held in protective custody by a campaign that trusts her less and less. A few conservatives have suggested she should be dropped from the ticket.

Then came McCain's abrupt foray into Washington's negotiations over a Wall Street bailout bill. His showy call for postponing Friday's debate was serenely rebuffed by Obama, and McCain was forced to retreat. The candidate with 26 years of congressional experience lost a test of wills to an opponent with just four years on the national stage.

And when McCain intervened in the rescue package discussions, his position on the matter was muddy. This champion of bipartisanship briefly stood up for a House Republican minority that was battling against a bipartisan accord largely accepted by his Senate Republican colleagues, and then he pulled back. The McCain who had once allied with such liberals as Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold was suddenly flirting with an approach to the economic rescue that was recommended by Newt Gingrich. The
post-Labor Day period has thus brought the campaign to an unexpected point.

McCain, once the candidate of tested experience, must now battle the perception that he has become the riskier choice, a man too given to rash moves under pressure. Obama, whose very newness promised change but also raised doubts, has emerged as the cool and unruffled candidate who moves calmly but steadily forward. However one judges the first debate, it did nothing to block Obama's progress.

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