Huge numbers of Americans tuned in for the first debate Friday night between Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. The subject was foreign policy, with a heavy dose of economics in light of the grave financial crisis hanging over the head of the US economy at the end of two turbulent weeks in financial markets around the world. But in a sense, more than just the performance of the two candidates was on display. Each was playing to the expectations of the American audience, while aware that they were speaking on a world stage as well.
Both candidates appeared very presidential and quite knowledgeable. But if respect for the truth and civility of tone were the highest measures of the candidates' self-confidence, Senator Obama won the debate in a walk.
Over and over, Senator McCain played fast and loose with the facts. He spoke of increased offshore oil drilling as a "short-term solution to high gas prices," when he knows experts have indicated that the 10-20 year delay in realizing such leases and the smallness of US reserves (only 3% of known world oil resources) guarantee that increased drilling cannot possibly impact US gas prices in the short-term. He spoke of building 45 new nuclear reactors and generating 700,000 new jobs, when not a single new reactor has been built anywhere in the US in dozens of years. He lied about Senator Obama planning to raise income taxes on people earning as little as $42,000 per year, despite Senator Obama's repeating hundreds of times that no one making less than $250,000 per year would see their income taxes rise.
Senator McCain repeated twice that Afghanistan hearings had never been held by a subcommittee Senator Obama chairs, despite the fact that responsibility for Afghanistan does not reside with that subcommittee. He accused Senator Obama of voting for a bill providing tax breaks for oil companies, when in fact the measure in question increased oil company taxes by $300 million. He said "earmarks" had tripled in value over the past five years, when in fact they have fallen over the past three years.
The New York Times labeled only one factual error by Senator Obama, when at the end of the debate he said that China held $1 trillion in US debt. But this depends on how debt is defined: while China holds a little more than $500 billion in US Treasury securities (as Senator McCain asserted), the Chinese hold more than a $1 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. Misrepresentation of the facts is a severe form of disrespect for one's opponent, and for one's audience.
But more troubling was the obvious contempt with which Senator McCain treated Senator Obama, numbingly repeating the construction "Senator Obama doesn't understand..." as if his lobbyist political consultants had beaten it into his head that he had to belittle Senator Obama's capacity for judgement at every opportunity. Senator McCain made virtually no eye contact with Senator Obama during the 90-minute debate, including when they shook hands at the end. Senator McCain never once used the word "Barack" during the debate. One wondered if Senator McCain, who has long prided himself on his sense of honor, was nonetheless ashamed by the personal criticism he felt compelled to level at his opponent.
In contrast, Senator Obama repeatedly addressed his remarks to has adversary by his first name. He refused to condemn Senator McCain's reversal on the torture legislation last year, instead applauding the older senator's earlier opposition. He offered no ad hominem attacks based on Senator McCain's health or age or poor school performance or previous misstatements of the facts, and demonstrated no hostility toward his rival.
These lapses of civility made Senator McCain look small, and his personal insecurity seemed unbecoming of someone who has battled so much adversity in his own life.
Perhaps the most striking impression left by the debates was the low expectations reserved for the American audience. Despite the world teetering on the brink of the worst financial crisis in 80 years, the subject of world poverty was barely mentioned. Out of the Great Depression arose an unprecedented political instability that led to the rise of fascism and a war that killed as many as 50 million people around the world. The recent food riots across the developing countries, as prices spiraled upwards, seemed to warn of a similar impending global security emergency.
Jim Lehrer, the moderator, seemed to feel as if Americans had no stomach for hearing about world poverty, in spite of the crisis atmosphere this week at the United Nations where government leaders and NGOs were debating the potential upheaval that could be precipitated by a global economic depression. As an educated people, we must rise to some new realization that the fate of poor people on the other side of the world directly affects our own security.