Hatchet vs. Scalpel (Recap of the First 2008 Presidential Debate)

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“Build the defense with wisdom and efficiency. We must achieve both security and solvency. In fact, the foundation of military strength is economic strength. A bankrupt America is more the Soviet goal than an America conquered on the field of battle.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower

With this quote, the First Presidential Debate between Senators McCain and Obama began. By all appearances there was no clear winner: both stumbled at times, both got the crowd to laugh, neither seemed too bloviating or bold.

If anyone was strange, it was host Jim Lehrer who kept egging the candidates on: “Say that directly to your opponent, Senator… look into his eyes.” Creepy.

Essentially it came down to the two issues Eisenhower raised: the economy and defense.

The economy. This lead-off discussion revealed only a few differences in the two candidates, but they are major. Both expressed support for the bailout, somewhat surprising. Senator Obama said that “$700 billion is potentially a lot of money.” Yeah, potentially it is.

McCain then let loose with his views on earmarks, aka pork or wasteful government spending. He’s been called the Sheriff of the Senate, with little support in fighting “the biggest budget increases since the Great Society” (under Democrat President LBJ, 1964).

Citizens Against Government Waste catalogs the crazy spending happening currently in Congress, I encourage you to read their reports and sign up for CAGW e-mails. You should know where your money is going.

When McCain mentioned the possibility of a federal spending freeze, excepting a few categories, Obama had had enough. “You’re using a hatchet when you need a scalpel.”

Wait… the federal budget is slated to be $1 TRILLION OVER BUDGET; keep in mind that budget itself is $3.2 TRILLION. I don’t think a scalpel–used for arts, crafts and dentistry–is going to do the trick on this budget. It needs a hatchet.

Though pressed for what he would cut, Obama only brought up that he plans to bring government-funded broadband internet to rural areas. Nice use of the “scalpel” there.

Fact check: Obama said that “effectively, the U.S. has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world.”

False. The accounting firm KPMG analyzed global tax rates in 106 countries, finding that the U.S. is ranked one of the highest — with 40% of corporate funds going towards taxes.

Fact check: McCain said the United States is the largest exporter in the world.

False. Germany is, according to The World Factbook. The U.S. is ranked third.

Defense. To say this was heated is a gross understatement. Both sides scored points along the way, with Obama’s mention of the $600 billion spent in Iraq raising eyebrows while McCain’s stand behind General Petraeus’ strategy showed his military understanding.

Side note: it was around this point that Obama stopped referring to McCain as “John” and began calling him “Senator McCain.” McCain got off a couple zingers here, including “It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left” and “I don’t even have a seal yet” (a reference to Obama’s presidential seal which many find presumptive.)

Fact check: “Admiral Mullen suggests that Senator Obama’s plan is dangerous,” said McCain. “That’s not the case,” Obama interjected.

McCain is correct. Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, actually called Obama’s plan “very dangerous” when appearing on Fox News Sunday.

Despite the negativity surrounding Iraq, it was crystal clear that McCain has a much better grasp on foreign affairs. He talked through his 20 years of experience. He knew the current troop counts in Afghanistan from memory. And McCain forced Obama to frequently resort to “Me too” responses on several major policy questions.

Favorite quote, following McCain’s story of a young hero he remembers by wearing the soldier’s bracelet:

“Let me just make a point: I have a bracelet too.”

– Senator Obama, then glances at his wrist to remember the name

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