Mississippi Gambit

Written for The Business Spectator, where it may appear in edited form.

The first debate brings to an end the silly season in every US Presidential election year. The trash-talking at the weigh-in is finally concluded, and the boxers are called to engage. 60 million citizens tune in, some clutching their tickets, some waiting for particular key assurances, some just wanting a winner to be declared. The climactic denouement to the election cycle is begun.

This debate was supposed to be on foreign policy. There was a rare consensus a week ago between the candidates — McCain hoped begin with his undeniable strong suit, and Obama was happy to have the focus narrow on domestic issues in October. Then, a crisis on Wall St intervened, and suddenly McCain wanted out. He ‘suspended’ his campaign, called on his opponent to do likewise, postponed the debate, and charged to Washington. Of course, his ads continued to air, his running mate was actually more talkative to the press, he himself held numerous TV interviews, and posed for photographers on Pennsylvania Avenue. Other than failing to appear on Letterman, and almost dodging this debate, it’s difficult to determine what was actually suspended.

But this was supposed to be his night, and though his pre-conditions (a word to which we’ll return) for enjoining the debate were not met, it surprised few when some hours beforehand he confirmed his attendance. He needed to: having consistently tracked several points behind in the polls since the start of the summer — short-lived bounces in dramatic news cycles notwithstanding — and after trampling across the delicate bailout negotiations in Washington yesterday, this was his big opportunity to lay a claim on the presidency, debating in the area of his clearest advantage.

So how did he do? Okay, given that the topic took a while to arrive. This debate was inevitably hijacked by the financial crisis. Almost half of it was consumed by the pressing economic questions. The candidates were invited to stake out a position on the bailout, and neither exactly did. Obama put forward some constraints on the release of federal funds, arguing for greater regulation, declaiming the economic management of the Bush administration and tying McCain to it by his voting record, and cautioning against golden parachutes for executives while Main St was hurting. McCain said “sure, I’ll vote for a measure,” but what was the measure? He meandered into populist pastures, attacking the rising trend in Congressional earmarks, which while politically sensitive have a very doubtful link to the causes of the country’s economic plight. When the topic is a US$700 billion subsidisation of Wall St, it seems naively disproportionate to be railing against a $3 million earmark for the study of bear DNA in Montana.

Somehow from this extended diversion into earmarking, a productive discussion of tax policy was salvaged. Obama reiterated the middle-class support he intended by his taxation reform, and goaded McCain into an unabashed defence of his proposed $300 billion in tax incentives to business. They traded the first direct blows (“Ask him about his definition of ‘rich’,” McCain muttered without elaborating), with Obama appearing to score most of the points. Asked to explain how the $700 billion would affect near-term budgets, McCain delivered a startlingly specific proposal: a ‘spending freeze’ on all government programs other than defence, veteran’s aid and legal entitlements. Obama’s answer was more equivocal — some budgetary expenditures would have to be delayed until this investment delivered returns.

Renewable forms of energy exercised much of the candidates thoughts on the future of the economy. After the home foreclosure signs, the ‘pain at the pump’ is the presaging symbol of economic concerns in this election year, and Obama in particular spoke at length on the promotion of these industries. McCain underlined his opposition to ethanol subsidies — in doing so perhaps ceding the swinging mid-western cornfields of Iowa — and his newfound embrace of off-shore drilling. Before the Republican refrain of ‘Drill baby drill’ could get a real airing however, Obama brought it into stark relief. America has 3% of the world’s oil reserves, and consumes 25% of the world’s production. “We can’t drill our way out of this problem,” he announced.

Oil was the unifying, understated theme of the debate that followed, which was the debate McCain originally wanted: foreign policy. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, Georgia dominated the discussion; other areas of particular American interest — Israel, North Korea, Latin America — drew only tangential remarks. Cuba went unmentioned, and though China’s emerging influence was addressed in the context of America’s ballooning debt, the wider implications of that relationship were largely ignored.

McCain claimed Iraq and the success of the surge, and Obama sought to emphasise the centrality of Afghanistan in America’s attempts to curb terrorist activity — that Bin Laden had not been ‘captured and killed’, that Iraq had been a misadventure, that Pakistan was a recalcitrant ally in controlling Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Here the candidates each found the slogans for which this debate will likely be remembered. McCain began sentence after sentence with “What my opponent doesn’t understand...”, underscoring the perceived experience gap effectively. Obama took McCain to task for supporting the Iraq war: “You were wrong. You were wrong. You were wrong.” Probably the hardest hit and the best sound-bite.

Though at times irritable, it was a substantive discussion. McCain was nuanced in describing the ground situation in Waziristan, north-west Pakistan, where local leaders had largely ‘inter-married’ with terrorist organisations. Turning the tables, he managed to portray his opponent as too gung-ho about American intervention in the region. Arguments over the Georgian crisis were not as varied as they were fierce: McCain’s support for Georgia was blunt, and he perceived that the Ukraine might ultimately be the real epicentre of the ongoing tensions among the former Soviet states. “An aggressive Russia is a threat,” declared Obama, one that demands “a sharp international response.” But the United States needed to avoid a Cold War mentality, to recognise some shared aims — particularly the management of nuclear armaments, which should not find their way into terrorist hands. You don’t look into the eye of Russia and try to find its soul, he said. McCain was incendiary: “I’ve looked into Putin’s eyes and seen three letters: KGB.”

On the handling of ‘rogue states’, specifically Iran, the answers revolved around a willingness to sit down and commence some level of negotiating. It all hung on the distinction between ‘pre-conditions’ and ‘preparation’. The Republican saw any presidential contact with rogue states that was made without pre-conditions as legitimising. The Democrat argued that a lot of low-level preparation would necessarily precede any meeting between heads of state, but that imposing US will before agreeing to commence discussions was ineffectual. This is perhaps the most substantial ideological distinction on foreign policy posture between the candidates, and the debate grew heated over Henry Kissinger’s views on the matter, but it’s unclear whether it’s a vote-swinger. Americans tend to let their President assume whatever stance he thinks befits the international situation. But McCain’s play is narrowly directed at Florida’s pro-Israel Jews, and Obama is making a more blanket appeal to common-sense. It’s likely to be a wash.

One of the surprising aspects of this debate, and of post-debate commentary, is how substantive it has been. Appearance and ‘electability’ assessments took a back seat. The height disparity was voided by camera angles, both men wore bad ties, McCain in particular struggled with eye contact, and wore no flag pin on his lapel. Obama had a habit of grinning at McCain’s criticisms that may have been ill-advised. US presidential debates are commonly processed this way: often the analysis that emerges, that propels the media narrative forward through October, concerns demeanour. And this debate was not completely high-minded, there was squabbling over voting records, and glossing over important issues. Nonetheless, after a week at the circus, this was a business-like rendevous.

The initial reactions were mixed. Trading markets like InTrade and Iowa Electronic Markets awarded points differently and barely significantly. The CBS News post-debate poll gave it to Obama by 18 points — 22 points on economic issues, but McCain claimed a six-point edge on Iraq policy. Commentators sat on the fence, declaring a ‘tie’ and a ‘draw’. This is probably how it will be received by the voters. But the question remains for McCain: after a bad ten days, does playing to a no-result on his home turf work in his favour, given his persistent gap in the polls? It’s hard to see how.

Joseph | 27 Sep 2008

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