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Liveblogging The First Debate

We’re almost underway. If you haven’t read Sridhar’s debate preview, you have like 20 minutes to cram. And since I would only mislead you if I tried to discuss the economy, Mary will also weigh in on the non-foreign policy portions of the program.

Two things I’m looking for. First, the Surge vs. the War. McCain will want to reduce the entire discussion of the Iraq war to a referendum on the surge; Obama will want to make it about both the initial decision to invade and about the neccessity of ending the war. Whomever succeeds at his desired frame will go a long way to winning the debate. Second, the degree to which Obama can translate McCain’s erratic behavior on the economy this week into a characterological attack on McCain’s consistency and reliability. If McCain can escape that trap, he’ll dodge a major bullet. OK, almost underway…

9:01: Roommate Matt Yglesias switches over to NBC in HD. The first HD presidential debate! Question: how will, uh, senior-citizen McCain look in HD? Are we approaching a Nixonesque moment?

9:03: Jim Lehrer quotes Eisenhower on “the foundation of military strength [being] economic strength.” Question about the recovery. Obama goes first. “We are at a defining moment in our history.” Two wars, and “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.” He’s speaking directly to a middle-class voter in Middle America. “We have to move swiftly and we have to move wisely.” Oversight; taxpayers should gain if/when “the market returns”; no CEO bailouts or “golden parachutes”; help homeowners. “This is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain.”

McCain. Stars with a touching note on the ailing Sen. Kennedy, “the lion of the Senate.” I’ve been “not feeling too great about a lot of things lately.” But he’s feeling better because Republicans and Democrats are “sitting down, trying to figure out” a solution — a solution that both Republicans and Democrats today blamed McCain for scuttling. “This package has transparency in it.” He sticks up for the House Republicans, “they decided to be part of the solution to the problem.” Except… they were kind of the problem over the last two days.

9:08. Obama won’t say that he’s for the still-forming bailout plan. “Optimistic.” Turns it to the origin of the financial crisis. “We’ve shredded so many regulations, we did not set up a 21st-century regulatory framework” because of contemporary conservatism’s excesses. McCain: “A lot of us saw this coming.” Says that somehow “greed is rewarded, excess is rewarded, and corruption” — pledges accountable. But won’t say how this mess began. Obama keeps turning it back to the origin of the crisis: Washington conservatives asking “what’s good for Wall Street but not what’s good for Main Street.” … “John, you said ten days ago that the fundamentals of the economy are strong… and I just fundamentally disagree.”

McCain: “The American worker is the most productive, most innovative… I have a fundamental belief in the United States of America.” Fine, fine, you believe. Belief isn’t what’s needed right now.

9:14: “First thing we have to do,” says McCain, “is get spending under control.” Hits Republicans for overspending. Goes after earmarking, “the evils of this earmarking.” Hits Obama for earmarks. Obama retorts: McCain wants $300 billion for the richest taxpayers. McCain: Obama is proposing $800 billion in new spending, “the worst thing we could do is raise people’s taxes.” Obama: “I don’t know where John’s getting his figures.” Interjects without interrupts.

9:20: McCain hits Obama for business taxation. “I want to cut that business tax.” Keeps going back to the $18 billion in pork-barrel spending. “I want every family to have a $500 refundable tax credit.” Obama: “95 percent of you will get a tax cut.” If you make less than $250,000 a year, you won’t see a tax hike. Hits Obama on McCain-approved tax loopholes that increase the tax burden on the middle class. McCain will tax health benefits “for the first time in history.” Can we talk about foreign policy, please? Mary, help!

9:26: What spending proposals are now impossible? Obama: not energy independence. Not health care. Not education investment. Not a new electricity grid, not broadband. That’s a lot still on the table! “We’ve got to eliminate programs that don’t work.” Uh, sure. McCain’s turn. Rein in spending. “Eliminate ethanol subsidies.” Cost-plus contracts. Hits on cost overruns of the Littoral Combat System! GOOD FOR JOHN MCCAIN. There, I said it.

9:31: Obama hits back on being called the most liberal senator by McCain. “Mostly, that’s me standing up to George Bush’s misguided policies.” Zing!

9:33: McCain said defense spending is off the table for cuts. But wait, what? I thought he was just hitting the LCS! Obama: “We’re currently spending $10 billion a month in Iraq.” OMG Foreign Policy!

9:36: Never. Mind. Pleeeeeeease talk about foreign policy. Actually, whatever, I get paid either way.

9:39: What are the lessons of Iraq? “Clear,” says McCain. No incorrect strategy. GEE, THANKS. “We went into Iraq and it was very badly handled.” He’s lying about his dissents on Iraq 2003-2006. “This strategy” — the surge — “has succeeded.” Iraq will be “a stable ally and a fledgling democracy.” If we’d lost in Iraq, we’d see “greater Iranian influence in the region,” which is happening, you know, right now.

Obama. Opposed the Iraq war, in large part because “we hadn’t put al-Qaeda to rest… as a consequence I thought it would be a distraction.” The issue is judgment and where we are: “al-Qaeda is resurgent. … We took our eye off the ball.” And remember: “We are still spending $10 billion a month.” Iraq as an economic issue too. He doesn’t appear as loose, fluid with Iraq as he does with the economy.

“How we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind” is the issue, with McCain. Hits back hard about the surge. Can Obama respond? He says the troops and Gen. Petraeus “have done a brilliant job… but that was a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years… John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007… You said it would be quick and easy. You were wrong.” He makes it a call-and-response: You were wrong, Sen. McCain, from the start. Obama just took McCain’s big issue against him.

9:46: “We don’t want our kids come back here!” says McCain. That’s why we have to stay 100 years! So we don’t have to come back! “Peace and prosperity” are actually the characteristics of Iraq right now? Walk through Baghdad for five minutes without guards if you actually think that. McCain also subcontracts all Afghanistan strategy to Gen. Petraeus, who, uh, isn’t entirely in charge in Afghanistan, as it’s also a NATO mission.

9:47: Obama makes it a choice between Iraq and Afghanistan, between Iraq and the war on al-Qaeda. “Capture and kill bin Laden, and crush al-Qaeda.”

9:49: McCain JUST COMPARED GEN. PETRAEUS TO OSAMA BIN LADEN. “They have one thing in common: both said Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.” UH, IF OBAMA SAID THAT, THE ELECTION WOULD BE A MCCAIN LANDSLIDE.

9:50: Obama: more troops for Afghanistan. He’s said it for over a year now. “Attacking our troops in a brazen fashion… We cannot seperate Afghanistan from Iraq.” Endorses two or three additional brigades going to Afghanistan. “Yet we have four times more troops [in Iraq] than Afghanistan, and that is a strategic mistake.” It’s not just more troops for Afghanistan, he adds: press Karzai on governance; counternarcotics; “We’ve got to deal with Pakistan.” Deal with the safe havens al-Qaeda has; hits Bush on the failure to eliminate them. “Until we do, we won’t be safe.”

9:53: McCain says he won’t… cut and run from Afghanistan. Declines to endorse military strikes in Pakistan and calls Obama irresponsible! “You don’t say that out loud!” Uh… so is it the right policy or not? McCain “It’s going to have to be the same strategy Sen. Obama condemns in Iraq.” That’s just stupid: Pashtun areas of Afghanistan/Pakistan just ain’t the same as Iraq. “Now that Gen. Petraeus is in a position of command…” Except that Petraeus isn’t solely in command.

9:55: Obama dares McCain to disagree with going after al-Qaeda in Pakistan. “Coming from you, who’s threatened extinction in North Korea, sang about bombing Iran…” Ohhhhh burn! Obama hits Bush’s Pakistan policy for coddling Musharraf, being anti-democratic, alienating the Pakistani population.

9:58: “I don’t think Sen. Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power,” says McCain. IT’S A 100 PERCENT LIE. That’s just not true.

10:00: They’ve both got troop bracelets. “No U.S. soldier ever dies in vain,” Obama said. “The question is for the next president, are we making good judgments on how to keep America safe?” Reiterates: eye off the ball in Afghanistan. “Sen. McCain, no one is talking about defeat in Iraq, but we’re having enormous difficulties in Afghanistan” because of it. Hits McCain on saying in 2005 that “we can muddle through in Afghanistan.” McCain sneers that Obama should have gone to Afghanistan and… turns it back to Iraq. Obama is a defeatocrat.

10:05: What’s the threat from Iran, Sen. McCain? “If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it’s an existential threat to the State of Israel and to the region,” fueling a regional nuclear arms race. “We cannot allow a Second Holocaust, let’s make that very clear.” Uh, ok! I didn’t know Obama was pro-Second Holocaust! McCain is pro “painful sanctions” on Iran, based on a united front of democratic nations. “Have no doubt: the Iranians are pursuing nuclear weapons right now,” he said, despite a National Intelligence Estimate saying that’s not true.

Obama: “I believe the Republican Guard of Iran is a terrorist organization,” despite McCain’s creative interpretation of his position. “The single thing strengthening Iran has been [the war in] Iraq.” Agrees “we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran.” Does some Israel-pandering, sigh. “We do need tougher sanctions… but I do not believe we can get the kind of sanctions we need without China and Russia,” two notable non-democracies. “Tough diplomacy” necessary. “In each instance, our efforts of isolation have” backfired.

10:08: McCain steps on his big attack line by being unable to pronounce Ahmedinejad’s name. “A propaganda platform” would result from talking to Iran. “I’ll sit down with anybody, but there’s got to be preconditions” but then says he wouldn’t talk to Ahmedinejad? I think…?

Obama: Kissinger, “one of your own advisers,” says to talk to Iran “without preconditions.” Splits difference between preconditions and preparation. Concedes that diplomacy might not work with Iran. Adds that now even Bush will talk with Iran. McCain “said the other day wouldn’t even meet with the Prime Minister of Spain. … I mean, Spain!”

10:14: Obama sure is having to explain this “precondition” point. You have to score that as a McCain advantage.

10:16: Russia. What’s the deal, Obama? “Our entire Russia approach has to be evaluated because a resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region.” McCain reprises his KGB-In-Putin’s-Eyes line. And correctly pronounces Saakashvili’s name!

10:22: Obama on Russia: anticipating problems as Obama said “back in April… having Russian peacekeepers in Georgia makes no sense whatsoever.” Second: energy. Russia in part resurgent “because of petro-dollars.” Don’t tell Leon Wieseltier! Obama goes back to McCain’s votes against alternative energy production.

10:25: Does McCain think Joe Six Pack knows what Nunn-Lugar is?

10:26: Another 9/11 attack “more safe than on the day after 9/11, but not yet safe,” says McCain. Sticks up for his support for the 9/11 Commission despite Bush’s opposition, and rightly so. Says we need more human intelligence; anti-torture (despite his flipflop last year, I guess); more multilateralism; “but I can say that we’re safer to day than on 9/11, but we have a long way to go.”

Obama: We’re safer “in some ways.” Airport security, for instance; not enough in terms of port security. “Biggest threat… is [a nuclear weapon] in a suitcase.” Obama, for some reasons, sticks up for missile defense! Ay yi yi. “The other thing we have to focus on is al-Qaeda… We have to go to the root cause, and that’s in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” It’s also time “to restore America’s standing in the world… and this is the greatest country in the world,” and credits McCain’s anti-torture (one time) position.

10:31: McCain closes with Iraq. “Fragile success” — so stay forever, but the policy is succeeding.

Obama hits his main point: go after al-Qaeda, Iraq is a distraction. Ties it back to China owning our debt; a subtle point about the Chinese rise coming in part because “we have weakened our capacity to project policy around the world” because of Iraq — and it’s also been a massive economic drain. “Never been a country on earth that went through an economic decline” and maintained its military superiority. “No one is talking about losing this war,” it’s that the next president “needs a broader strategic wisdom.”

10:34: McCain tries to turn Obama into… Bush. Uh, yeah, that’ll work.

10:35: Obama reminds you that his dad came from Kenya, “because there was no other country on earth where you can make it if you tried.” Don’t think “our standing in the world is the same.” Makes it a judgment and security question: “Send a message to the world, we’re going to invest in education.”

10:36: McCain. “I know how to heal the wounds of war.”

And it’s over. Now both sides claim their side won. I’d have to say that this is a narrow Obama win. McCain had the advantage; Obama looked strong; and McCain took some weird flights of fancy and made some factual mistakes. But McCain landed some serious punches on the Iran/diplomacy “preconditions” stuff.

OK, so what did I say at the beginning? The Surge vs. The War. Narrowly, Obama did a good job connecting it back to the war. McCain didn’t get too much of an opportunity to make all the Iraq questions Surge questions. So, advantage Obama. McCain’s erraticism on economics/judgment. Obama didn’t get this done. He hit McCain’s judgment again and again, but didn’t connect it the economics stuff to the foreign-policy stuff. So there McCain got out of the noose. On the whole, narrow Obama victory, I suppose, in large part because McCain couldn’t land the knockout on the issues that he’s predicated his whole candidacy is on. Good night!

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