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Presidential Debate Round 1 - Did Obama and McCain Answer Jim Lehrer's Questions?

September 29, 2008
The long awaited moment finally arrived, and Americans, still interested in knowing what either presidential candidate will do as president, sat in front of their television sets, or tuned in to their radio frequencies to watch or listen. One hundred minutes later, except for the die-hard fans of John McCain or Barack Obama, many of us came away half empty or frustrated. While followers on either side were claiming victory -- McCain won! Obama won! -- it was clear who lost the debate: America lost. And guess who won: the Game of Politics.

Why do I say that? News analysts focused their minds on how Obama "held his own", and how McCain proved he deserves the foreign policy strong suit.

Look at the questions posed by debate moderator Jim Lehrer and a summary of the answers given by the candidates. Then judge for yourself, if McCain and Obama answered the questions, sought only to score political points, or played defense so as not to sustain damage.

Question 1: Where you do stand on the $700 billion bailout plan?
=> Obama lists his conditions for the bailout.
=> McCain blasts greed on Wall Street.

Question 2: Are there fundamental differences between your economic plans?
=> McCain: I'll veto every earmark, every pork barrel spending bill.
=> Obama: McCain wants to give $300 billion tax cut to the wealthiest Americans.

Question 3: What items on your agenda will you have to give up due to the $700 billion bailout?
=> Obama: Some priorities will be delayed. Then he lists all of his "priorities": energy, health care, education, infrastructure.
=> McCain will consider cut in defense spending. Examine every agency of government. Will consider a spending freeze on everything except defense and veterans care.

Question 4: How will the bailout affect how you govern? (Mr. Lehrer rephrased the previous question, trying to get some real answers. The moderator showed his frustration several times, as the politicians evaded answering his questions.)
=> Obama lists items he can't set aside.
=> McCain repeats "cut spending".

Question 5: What do you see as the lessons of Iraq?
=> McCain speaks of the surgery strategy. Troops will come home in victory. He takes credit again, of course.
=> Obama says, "We should not have gone to Iraq in the first place." Isn't that brilliant? Then he stressed the cost of the Iraq War ($600 billion already; $10 billion per month). "We must use our military wisely."

Question 6: What needs to be done in Afghanistan?
=> Obama will reduce troop levels in Iraq; send the troops to Afghanistan; deal with Pakistan.
=> McCain regrets past error of abandoning the Afghans in their struggle with Russia.

Question 7: What is your read of the threat from Iran regarding the Security of the United States?
=> McCain will form a "League of Democracies" to impose significant sanctions on Iran to affect Iranian behavior. "We can't allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapon."
=> Obama: That Iran is marching towards getting nuclear weapon is proof that our policy on Iran has not worked.
=> McCain: I will sit down with anybody but with preconditions.
=> Obama: There's a difference between preconditions and preparation. I was called naive when I proposed talking to Iran, but the Bush administration has been talking with Iran. It was when we stopped talking to the Iranians that they advanced in acquiring nukes.
=> McCain calls Obama naive. He calls Obama's approach to diplomacy "dangerous".

Question 8: How do you see America's relationship with Russia?
=> Obama: The dynamics have changed, but we have to engage Russia, because it has stock piles of nukes. We don't want those nukes to end up in the hands of rogue nations.
=> McCain: The Russians are in violation of the cease-fire agreement they signed. We should bring Georgia and other former Soviet democracies into NATO.
=> Obama: Russia is strong because of petroleum money. Our energy policy (alternative energy) can weaken Russia by lowering oil purchases from Russia.

Question 9: What do you think is the likelihood that we will have another 911 attack?
=> McCain: It is more unlikely now than before; we are safer but not safe. We need to work across the aisle to make America more safe. We need to do better at intelligence but not use torture.
=> Obama: We're safer in some ways, but we haven't done well in protecting our ports of entry; it's still easy for dangerous weapons to come here in a suit case. We must focus on Al Qaeda, which is now in 60 countries. We're less respected in the world now than before; we must restore America's standing in the world.
=> McCain: If we lose in Iraq, it will strengthen Al Qaeda.
=> Obama: Our exclusive focus on Iraq has given China the edge to increase it's influence in Latin America, Africa, and other parts of the world. Because of what we're spending on Iraq, we don't have the resources to compete with China. No country has seen it's economy decline and maintain its military superiority.

Final Jabs
=> McCain: Obama does not understand. He does not have the experience. We don't need on-the-job training. I'm ready to go right now. (McCain didn't mean ready to leave the debate stand, but ready to lead from day one, as Hillary Clinton used to say in her campaign against Obama.)
=> Obama: No one can say that our standing in the world now is what it was 8 years ago.

My Take on the First Debate

Since economic concerns rank the #1 issue for American voters in the 2008 elections, it seems way too much of the debate time was given to national security and foreign policy. But they tell me that military and security matters were supposed to be the focus of this first debate.

Senator McCain kept repeating that Senator Obama is naive, does not understand national security and foreign policy issues. Obama really offered no response to this blatant attack, except to say that judgment is more important than experience. But he's said that many times before, so his response was weak, compared to the force of McCain's punch.

In general, it could be said that Senator McCain had a better night than Obama on the foreign policy front. However, with his repeated line of "Obama is naive; Obama does not understand", McCain came across as patronizing, and even disrespectful towards Obama. In fact, there was an air of arrogance about McCain as he paraded his foreign policy expertise. Experience need not equal arrogance. You may not agree with your opponent, but you don't have to despise the person, you don't have to show disrespect for a colleague in the Senate. And McCain does not have to rhyme with disdain.

For his part, Senator Obama lived up to his typical self. Mr. Too-Nice Guy, saying God knows how many times, "McCain is right." He was trying to be polite, while McCain was in it for the kill. Obama is not a fighter. Every time, it seems he must be pushed to the extreme limits before he will strike back. And that is what makes some Americans nervous about Obama being the Commander In Chief. With this Mr. Nice Guy instinct and demeanor, will Obama be able to stand up to determined adversarial players like China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and their allies in our dog-eat-dog world?

As for the no answers and poor answers that McCain and Obama gave to the questions, it would be better if the candidates would attend each presidential debate with a different mindset. Don't focus on how to win the debate, or how to avoid losing. Instead, go up there with an attitude that says, "I will answer each question directly and thoroughly for the benefit of the American voter." The candidate who does that will be seen as the winner in the eyes of the voter, and that's all that really matters. When a candidate does not answer the question, he may win the debate, but the voter loses every time, and that is a shame, an affront to the democratic process.

In that light, we need the moderator of a debate to play a different role, a more aggressive, no-nonsense role. The moderator should insist on getting answers to his/her questions. Why settle for no answers, half answers, and evasions. Hold these guys' feet to the fire. Play Bill O'Reilly with them. "Sir, with all due respect, that's not the question. Please answer the question for the American people. Treat this presidential debate as a no-spin zone. Go thin on your talking points. Give us clear, direct answers to each question. Will you do that, Sir, for the sake of the voters?"

Can we find a moderator that will not serve as referee in another political game but as advocate for the American people?
1,561 - 2 - 0 - US

Mogama (Moses Garswa Matally) is graced with one loyal wife and three lovely children. He is a native of Liberia and the author of Refugee Was My Name, a memoir of his flight from civil war, and life in a refugee camp, before migrating to the United States. Also known as Brother G, the founding pastor of Church For All holds an Associate in Computer Technology from Owensboro Community & Technical College, a Bachelor of Theology from Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary, a Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Website;email

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