A blistering economic crisis may be the all-encompassing issue of the moment.
But the war in Iraq still defines the difference between John McCain and Barack Obama.
McCain remains the true believer in that occupation, the man who really does want to carry it forward until some ill-defined “victory” is obtained – even if that takes a hundred years.
Obama remains the doubter who — as he went out of his way to note in Friday night’s first debate between the two men who would be president — spoke out against launching the war six years ago and remains committed to drawing it down.
These were the bottom lines of a debate that could have been all about economics but that ultimately ended up being a very serious, and at times very edgy, discourse about war and peace.
McCain called Iraq “the central issue of our time.”
At the very least, it was the central issue of the debate.
The Republican said his Democratic rival “just doesn’t understand” the importance of staying the course in the Middle East.
Obama argued that McCain lacks “the broader strategic vision” necessary to make the United States a functional player on the global stage – and at home. And he suggested that the Republican’s misread of the Iraq question all the way back in 2002, as well as McCain’s ongoing refusal to recognize his error, confirmed his opponent’s deficiency.
“The fundamental question is whether we should have gone into Iraq in the first place,” Obama declared.
“If the question is who is the best equipped as the next president to make good decisions about how we use our military,” the Democrat continued, “then I think we can take a look at our judgment.”
McCain, who constantly tried to suggest that Obama was naïve, argued that, “The next president of the United States will not have to address the issue of whether or not we should have gone into Iraq.”
“The issue is when we leave and how we leave,” said the Republican.
McCain was right about that, as was evidenced by a poignant clash between the candidates over the meaning of the bracelets they wear to honor soldiers killed in the conflict.
McCain said he wore a memorial bracelet – given to him by the mother of a soldier in New Hampshire — to remind himself that deaths would be in vain if the war was not seen through to “victory.”
Rejecting the notion that any soldier’s death should be seen as having been in vain, Obama said he wore a memorial bracelet – given to him by the mother of a soldier in Wisconsin – to remind himself of the need to bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion in order to save more mothers from having to bury their sons and daughters.
McCain and Obama did not disagree on every international issue. Both men offered indications that they buy into much of the current consensus in Washington with regard to foreign policy — a consensus that agrees on bloated defense budgets and over-the-top rhetoric especially with regard to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
But rarely in modern years has a presidential debate exposed so many clear distinctions on global concerns – about Iraq, Iran and the value of diplomacy – and this is what made Friday night’s clash memorable.
Not to mention surprising.
Debate moderator Jim Lehrer opened the first of three debates between the two contenders with a little bit of lip service to the agreed-upon area of discussion: foreign policy. But the moderator acknowledged that they met at the close of a week of wrangling over failed banks and bailouts with a declaration that any discussion of international affairs in a moment of domestic economic turmoil “by definition includes the global financial crisis.”
Lehrer really did try to get an economic debate going.
More than a half hour passed before anyone mentioned Iraq or Afghanistan.
The discussion turned to infrastructure renewal and extending access to the internet before it did to China, Russia, India, Georgia, Israel, Palestine or other global hotspot.
Again and again, Lehrer steered the discussion to the financial crisis.
That was appropriate.
But Lehrer didn’t have much luck getting either McCain or Obama to scope out visions for domestic economic regeneration, let alone the interplay of the U.S. economy and that of the world.
The moderator tried, repeatedly, to get the candidates to identify ways in which the economic crisis was going to influence how they would govern. But the candidates kept dancing around the questions. McCain was against “unnecessary and wasteful spending.” Obama told McCain that “your president” (George Bush) had presided over “an orgy of spending” that, he noted, the Republican nominee has usually supported.
McCain toyed openly with the notion of a spending freeze but, when pressed, refused to formally propose one. Obama acknowledged that the cost of a Wall Street bailout might make it tougher to launch new domestic initiatives, but as Lehrer noted the senator from Illinois did not seem to be willing to abandon any of those initiatives.
Finally, 33 minutes into the discourse, Obama suggested that he would be more inclined to steers some funds be out of Iraq and back toward the U.S.
Obama only devoted a few seconds to the notion before steering back to the domestic debate, however.
It was not until almost half way into the debate that Lehrer actually asked the “Iraq” question.
Then, finally, the candidates diverged.
Recalling his own opposition to the war, Obama rapped McCain for getting everything about the run-up to the war wrong.
“At the time when the war started, you said it was quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were,” said Obama. “You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong.”
McCain said Obama is getting it wrong now. “Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge that we are winning in Iraq,” announced McCain.
“That’s not true, that’s not true,” countered Obama.
Repeatedly, the candidates clashed.
And they clearly did disagree.
John McCain debated as the man who wanted this war six years ago and who wants it to continue even now.
Barack Obama debated as the man who won the Democratic nomination in large part because he had the wisdom to oppose launching an unnecessary preemptive war, and who scored points throughout the primary fight by promising to renew America’s commitment to diplomacy.
The two men were speaking to a country that is rightly worried about a stumbling economy.
But the country worries, as well, about foreign-policy stumbles.
And the invasion and occupation of Iraq remains the worst of those stumbles in recent American history.
There will be plenty of spin about what was said in the first presidential debate.
But the focus on the war in Iraq, a war that most Americans think was a mistake and want to see finished, means that — while the night saw no knockout blows — it was Obama who got the debate he wanted and needed.