The experience we don't need
Carlton M. Caves
2008 September 28

I watched the first presidential debate Friday evening, listened to some post-debate commentary, and read the pundits' reactions yesterday and today. I thought the debate was pretty much of a draw, and that's not bad, because it's all Barack needed to do to establish himself as a presidential-scale leader on the economic and national-security issues that were under discussion.

What really matters---and what neither I nor any of the pundits yet knows---is the response of swing voters in the key states of New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. The swing voters in those states are now the jury that counts---the rest of us are only onlookers---and Lord knows how these swing voters think.

I have the advantage of living in the major city in one of those swing states. Last night my wife and I had a party to celebrate the installation of two sandstone kookaburras, made in Tasmania. They are now mounted in a juniper tree just off our back deck, where they remind us of the good times we've spent in Australia. Most of the 30 celebrants at the party were solidly in the Obama camp, but there were a few of those swing voters in attendance. (Eat your heart out, California and New York and Texas and Georgia. What would you give to engage with one of the few voters whose vote will make the difference?) I can report that their response to the debate was mixed. They paid a regrettable amount of attention to body language and personal demeanor and even Jim Lehrer's appearance, but they also displayed a healthy skepticism, produced by the many times both candidates avoided answering the question they were asked. I can also report that Sarah Palin has had the salutary effect of pushing all these swing voters reluctantly into the Obama camp. Perhaps they'll mark their ballots without much enthusiasm, but when the votes are counted, you can't tell a reluctant vote from an enthusiastic one.

I do think that there were some areas where Barack could have hit McCain much harder---on earmarks, the bailout, Iraq, and Iran. Here are some responses that I would suggest, keeping in mind that I'm typing these out at my leisure on my laptop, not having to craft a response on the fly while a camera broadcasts in high def my every bead of sweat to tens of millions of viewers.

When McCain went on and on about earmarks, Barack might have responded succinctly by saying the following (he did communicate a good part of this):

John, you're right that earmarks are important. They exploded under the Republican-controlled Congress, and now they must be brought under control. I've worked on doing that, along with you and others in the Senate, as you know. But, John, earmarks come to $18 billion a year, and there are other dollar amounts that are more important. The American people are smart enough to know that the $300 billion in additional tax cuts that you want to give to the wealthiest Americans is more important. They are smart enough to know that the nearly $500 billion federal deficit is more important. And they're smart enough to know that the $700 billion bailout package we're discussing is even more important. John, eliminating earmarks is the centerpiece of your campaign, but the American people are smart enough to know that just eliminating earmarks is not the answer to our country's problems. I look forward to working with you and other Senators next January---and with members of the House---to bring earmarks under control---we have to do it---but I have to tell you that other things will be more important.

On the response to Wall Street's meltdown, Barack could have been much more direct.

Our economy is in crisis. As we meet here tonight, work continues in Washington to craft a package to prevent the meltdown of our financial system while protecting the interests of taxpayers and middle-class Americans. This crisis is the result of many factors, but chief among them is the Republican economic philosophy. This philosophy has led to an unregulated financial system that has rewarded a few players with great wealth even as those players gambled with the economic well being of every American. John McCain has consistently supported the Republican policies that have gotten us into this crisis. I understand the righteous anger of American taxpayers who are now being asked to save our financial system from the greed and irresponsibility of a few. But we cannot allow the system to collapse, for a collapse would impoverish every American. We must take action, and then we have to fix the system.

I've been thinking about the problems of our financial system for several years now. Last March I outlined reforms that might have averted the present crisis. I don't have time to present the details here, nor do most Americans want to know the details. What you want to know is that your president is on top of the situation. A week ago Monday, as the financial system approached collapse, John McCain still thought that our economy was fundamentally sound. Then, as he woke up on Tuesday, he discovered that we've got a big problem and he's the one to solve it. You have a stark choice in this election: do you want a president who long ago realized that we need to change direction, or do you want someone who woke up just ten days ago?

When McCain said that the next President will be dealing with how we get out of Iraq, not how we got in, Barack could have responded this way.

John, let's set aside the question of which of us has shown better judgement on Iraq. I'm happy to leave that question for the American people to decide. As you say, the question now is how we get out of Iraq. I've told the American people what I'm going to do. I think the situation in Iraq is such that we can withdraw over a 16-month period. The Iraqi government agrees with me. This will allow us to address more important problems both at home and in Afghanistan. You've told us that you're going to continue with the present strategy in Iraq. You've talked about victory, but you haven't told us how we will recognize that victory when we get to it. You haven't told us how long it will take or how much it will cost or how many American lives will be required. I invite you to tell us these things now.

(After McCain responds by talking about the success of the surge and the need to trust General Petraeus.)

General Petraeus is a great general. I've talked to him, and I intend to take full advantage of his expertise as we move forward in Iraq and Afghanistan. But being the president is more than just saying we have a great general. Being the president requires making hard decisions and explaining to the American people the costs of those decisions. George Bush and Dick Cheney have never told us the truth about what their Iraq policy would cost in terms of lives and treasure. And, John, apparently you've learned from them, because you just refused to tell the American people what your policy is going to cost or how long it's going to take. You say you have the experience to be president, and you say I don't get it. But what your experience seems to mean is four more years of Bush and Cheney. John, that's not the experience we need. We've already had eight years of it.

When the discussion turned to Iran, Barack shouldn't have introduced Henry Kissinger into the discussion---who couldn't have predicted that the Inscrutable K would drop his inscrutability and issue a statement saying that McCain got him right?---but should have explained clearly why we have to engage Iran.

Let me speak directly to why we need to engage Iran in diplomatic discussions. The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made outrageous statements about Israel and the West. I condemn those statements, as do all right-thinking people. But once you've condemned them, where does that leave you? Still having to figure out what to do.

We have to engage Iran in hard-headed, comprehensive discussions, without preconditions, for four reasons. First, we need to know what the Iranian government really thinks and wants, and they need to know directly from us what we want. Second, the people of Iran need to know where their government stands. Ahmadinejad is not the whole country. He's not even the most powerful figure in the government. The only way the people of Iran are going to find out where their government stands is if we force the government to play its hand and to identify its vital interests, instead of hiding behind Ahmadinejad's grandstanding. Third, our allies and other countries such as Russia and China have to know exactly where we and Iran stand if we are going to ask them to help us in imposing more serious sanctions on Iran. Fourth, if I ever have to commit our military forces against Iran, I have to be able to say to our troops and their relatives---and to all Americans---that I'm sure---and I mean absolutely sure---there is no other option.

As president, I will open diplomatic channels to Iran. Perhaps this will lead nowhere, but it could be that it will lead to discussions at the highest levels of our governments. We can't afford not to find out.

A strong nation knows how to talk to its enemies and is not afraid to do so. George Bush and Dick Cheney decided that we weren't strong enough to do that. John McCain thinks that talk is the same as surrender. I know better than that. Apparently all John's experience hasn't taught him how to talk tough.

   Index to CMC commentaries