Week In Review: Presidential Debate, Bailout
SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The next president of the United States appeared in Oxford, Mississippi last night. Barack Obama and John McCain had their first presidential debate on the campus of Ole Miss. It was supposed to center on foreign policy but as the moderator, Jim Lehrer, pointed out, it's impossible to separate foreign policy from fiscal health and the meltdown of the financial markets and the proposal to rescue them that has dominated the news this week. Dan Schorr is away this week, so instead, we're joined by our friend, Clive Crook, writer for the Financial Times, National Journal and The Atlantic. Thanks so much for being with us.
SIMON: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: And overall impression?
SIMON: Well, I thought the debate was not a game changer. I thought it was pretty close. They both did reasonably well. For me, Obama won on points. I thought his demeanor was great. He was a lot more focused, a lot less professorial than he has been in the past. And I thought McCain was a little prickly, at times a little defensive, but as I say, it was close. I'm reading the commentaries this morning. A lot of people are giving it to Obama, a lot of others giving it to McCain. I don't think it will have changed anybody's minds about the candidates.
SIMON: Let me dare a fact-based question, however, and we'll get back to the stuff that I understand really counts, in terms of political effect. But Jim Lehrer had some problems getting either of them to say, look, what are you willing to give up from what you've promised the American people to cover what right now looks like it will be $700 billion of additional government spending?
SIMON: Absolutely. I thought that was the single most interesting thing in the whole debate. I wanted to give Lehrer a standing ovation for pressing that question. Incidentally, I thought he was a terrific moderator all through, but that, for me, was the key thing, and he couldn't get them, even after maybe three or four attempts, to squarely address that question. I mean, they both said things but nothing substantive. Neither one of them was willing to say what precisely they were going to change in their platforms because of the fiscal crisis, because of the bailout. I thought that was very revealing and actually pretty disappointing.
SIMON: Yeah. Now we should understand this. Is that because - I mean, after all, we're sitting here exchanging smart comments or not-so-smart comments, in my case, the morning after, but they really have to worry about running for office. Now, is it as simple as the fact that if they say, well, we'll have to cut this with that, they're giving away votes?
SIMON: Yes, I thought - I think it is. It is very, very difficult politically for them to address it, but I was looking for a little bit of reassurance that they were at least thinking about this issue, and I didn't even see that. Even though, as I said, I thought Obama did well in the debate. He started by acknowledging that things had changed and maybe not everything he wanted to do could be done at once. Some things might have to wait. But then he listed the things that he thought needed to happen regardless and listed virtually his whole program.
SIMON: And so, I didn't think that they betrayed any sense that things have really changed. Things really have changed.
SIMON: But what you point to as maybe an Oxford Debating Society flaw or losing a point, politically they gained a point by refusing to specify and just reiterating the programs they want to front.
SIMON: I'm not sure. I mean, I'm not sure how the listening public would have reacted to that, but my guess is that people would have thought, you know, Lehrer was pressing a fair point. It was a good question. And people could see that he wasn't satisfied that he was getting a straight answer. My guess is that a lot of people have thought, well, yes, this does make a difference, you know. Let's hear something substantive. So I'm not sure that they did score political points actually getting into the detail of just how constrained they will be by this fiscal bailout, the cost of it. That would have been politically very dangerous water. But I think most people would have noticed that they failed to grapple with the question and that was, I think, a negative for both of them.
SIMON: And how did they do in foreign policy?
SIMON: Well, there my feeling was that they were at pains to emphasize differences, which in practical terms are actually quite small. And I know this isn't a kind of a conventional view. I've been reading a lot of people saying, well, on foreign policy, of course, they have these huge differences on Iraq and on the long exchange they had about talking to rogue nations without preconditions.
But if you actually asked what are the differences in practice, I think they're almost negligible. I mean, on Iraq, McCain wants to withdraw American forces as soon as conditions permit. Obama talks about a timetable but won't promise to get all the troops out by a certain date. So in practice, where is the difference there?
And then on preconditions, well, McCain says you talk to people with preconditions. Obama says you talk to them with preparation. Again, what's the difference there? If you ask specifically, how would they differ on existing foreign policy challenges and how would they differ on things that are going to come up in their administration, I'm not sure I could see big differences there.
SIMON: Clive Crook, so nice talking to you. I hope we'll talk to you again.
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