McCain and Obama go for the jugular but keep it decent in round two

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain and Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama embrace after their presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee October 7, 2008. Photo/REUTERS

Barack Obama and John McCain held their second presidential debate on Tuesday night (Wednesday, 4am-6am East African time) against the backdrop of an increasingly bitter and personalised battle.

But at the podium at Belmont University, it was not so much the vicious and bitter personalised duel that was anticipated. Instead both tried hard to expound on policy issues.

Although they were civil enough to each other, it was also notable that each candidate, in most cases, responded to questions by criticising his opponent’s position rather than just explaining his own stand.

Mr McCain — who approached the debate with a promise that the ”gloves are off” and a series of hard-hitting attacks on Mr Obama — signalled his intentions to go out aggressively early by ignoring campaign rules and answering questions by getting off his chair to approach the audience.

It was not until late into the debate that Mr Obama also stood and moved forward, but he did not approach the audience as close as Mr McCain did.

Overall, Mr Obama seemed to have come out of debate more impressively, which might be a severe blow for Mr McCain.

The Republican candidate has been progressively falling behind in the polls, especially in the so-called battleground states that traditionally provide the swing at every election depending on which way they go.

The battleground states in this election are mostly in regions where Mr McCain should have the edge, but all the polls show him trailing. It was in the effort to close the gap that the Arizona senator announced the get-tough strategy, which primarily aims at going personal on his opponent.

Mr McCain has also been desperate to move the campaign away from issues (he is particularly vulnerable on his support for the discredited Bush administration, thus bears part of the blame for the financial crisis) and focus on the individual.

Gentle attacks

The latest polls show that the strategy has not worked. Mr McCain’s failure to score a decisive win at the debate further diminishes his chances.

Despite the gentle attacks Mr Obama and Mr McCain launched on each other, the situation did not degenerate into insults, and it was ultimately the debate on issues that handed Mr Obama the edge.

Summary of how the candidates faced key questions.

ECONOMY: Whether (the $700 billion) bailout will help ordinary people:

McCain: Because of the greed and excess in Washington and Wall Street, Main Street was paying a very heavy price.

I left my campaign and suspended it to go back to Washington to make sure that there were additional protections for the taxpayer in the form of good oversight, in the form of taxpayers being the first to be paid back when our economy recovers -- and it will recover -- and a number of other measures.

But you know, one of the real catalysts, really the match that lit this fire was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I’ll bet you, you may never even have heard of them before this crisis.

But you know, they’re the ones that, with the encouragement of Sen Obama and his cronies and his friends in Washington, that went out and made all these risky loans, gave them to people that could never afford to pay back.

Greed and excess

And you know, there were some of us that stood up two years ago and said we’ve got to enact legislation to fix this. We’ve got to stop this greed and excess.

Meanwhile, they were getting all kinds of money in campaign contributions. Sen Obama was the second highest recipient of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac money in history -- in history.

Obama: Let me tell you what’s in the rescue package for you. Right now, the credit markets are frozen up and what that means, as a practical matter, is that small businesses and some large businesses just can’t get loans.

If they can’t get a loan, that means that they can’t make payroll. If they can’t make payroll, then they may end up having to shut their doors and lay people off.

Biggest problem

So it could end up having an adverse effect on everybody, and that’s why we had to take action. But we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Now, I’ve got to correct a little bit of Sen McCain’s history. The biggest problem in this whole process was the deregulation of the financial system. Sen McCain, as recently as March, bragged about the fact that he is a deregulator. On the other hand, two years ago, I said that we’ve got a sub-prime lending crisis that has to be dealt with.

Now, with respect to Fannie Mae, what Sen McCain didn’t mention is the fact that this Bill that he talked about wasn’t his own Bill. He jumped on it a year after it had been introduced and it never got passed.

And I never promoted Fannie Mae. In fact, Sen McCain’s campaign chairman’s firm was a lobbyist on behalf of Fannie Mae, not me.

HEALTHCARE: Do you believe health care should be treated as a commodity?

Obama: One of the single most frequently asked issues that I get, is the issue of healthcare. It is breaking family budgets. I can’t tell you how many people I meet who don’t have health insurance.

Many families

We have a moral commitment as well as an economic imperative to do something about the healthcare crisis.

So here’s what I would do. If you’ve got healthcare already, and probably the majority of you do, then you can keep your plan if you are satisfied with it. We’re going to work with your

employer to lower the cost of your premiums by up to $2,500 (Sh185,000) a year.

If you don’t have health insurance, you’re going to be able to buy the same kind of insurance that Sen McCain and I enjoy as federal employees. Because there’s a huge pool, we can drop the costs. And nobody will be excluded for pre-existing conditions, which is a huge problem.

Now, Sen McCain has a different kind of approach. He says that he’s going to give you a $5,000 (Sh375,000) tax credit. What he doesn’t tell you is that he is going to tax your employer-based healthcare benefits for the first time ever.

Wrong way

So what one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away. He would also strip away the ability of states to provide some of the regulations on insurance companies to make sure you’re not excluded for pre-existing conditions or your mammograms are covered or your maternity is covered.

And that is fundamentally the wrong way to go.

McCain: What is at stake here in this healthcare issue is the fundamental difference between myself and Sen Obama. As you notice, he starts talking about government. He starts saying, government will do this and government will do that.

I want to give every American a $5,000 refundable tax credit. They can take it anywhere, across state lines.

Why not? Don’t we go across state lines when we purchase other things in America? Of course it’s OK to go across state lines because in Arizona they may offer a better plan that suits you best than it does here in Tennessee.

PAKISTAN: Should the US respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there?

Obama: Part of the reason we have a difficult situation is because we made a bad judgment going into Iraq in the first place when we hadn’t finished the job of hunting down bin Laden and crushing al Qaeda.

So what happened was we got distracted, we diverted resources, and ultimately bin Laden escaped, set up base camps in the mountains of Pakistan in the northwest provinces there.

They are now raiding our troops in Afghanistan, destabilising the situation. They’re stronger now than at any time since 2001. And that’s why I think it’s so important for us to reverse course, because that’s the central front on terrorism.

Now raiding

But I do believe that we have to change our policies with Pakistan. We can’t coddle, as we did, a dictator, give him billions of dollars and then he’s making peace treaties with the Taliban and militants.

McCain: Teddy Roosevelt used to say walk softly -- talk softly, but carry a big stick. Sen Obama likes to talk loudly.

In fact, he said he wants to announce that he’s going to attack Pakistan.

You know, if you are a country and you’re trying to gain the support of another country, then you want to do everything you can that they would act in a cooperative fashion.

When you announce that you’re going to launch an attack into another country, it’s pretty obvious that you have the effect that it had in Pakistan: It turns public opinion against us.

Obama: Sen McCain is the guy who sang, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don’t think is an example of “speaking softly.”

This is the person who, after we had -- we hadn’t even finished Afghanistan, where he said, “Next up, Baghdad.”


McCain: First of all I don’t think that we’re going to have another Cold War with Russia.

But have no doubt that Russia’s behaviour is certainly outside the norms of behaviour that we would expect for nations which are very wealthy, as Russia has become, because of their petro dollars.

We have to make the Russians understand that there are penalties for this kind of behaviour, this kind of naked aggression into Georgia, a tiny country and a tiny democracy.

Obama: The resurgence of Russia is one of the central issues that we’re going to have to deal with in the next presidency. And for the most part I agree with Sen McCain on many of the steps that have to be taken.