October 2, 2008

Round One: To a Draw

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Friday was the first presidential debate and by now there’s sure to be enough spin for both sides to present two completely different interpretations of the same, rather disappointing event. Though the theme of the night was to be foreign policy, the debate rightly gave more urgency to the current economic crisis, although it made this post somewhat more difficult to write. As with most debates, no new policy proposals came up, but we did get to see the two men side by side and were able to contrast their different outlooks and styles. Though neither candidate took the upper hand, we saw two different visions for America’s place in the world.

It seems to me that the candidate’s most fundamental difference is their inherent worldview. McCain sees the world through a lens shaped through his experience in a North Vietnamese POW camp and the Cold War. He sees stark contrasts between good and evil, with little gray area. Supporting democratization, by force if necessary, McCain never doubts the righteousness of American values and ethics. He also embraces a rejection of those countries and leaders who he believes do not embrace American values. You can see this view with his proposed “League of Democracies,” which would offer sanctions and legitimize punitive action against rogue states when the UN refuses to act. McCain’s Iraq view is most certainly shaped with the lessons he learned from Vietnam and his personal experiences in that defeat. It is also clear from his rejection of Obama’s proposal to meet with rogue leaders that he does not view engagement as the most effective, or even right, means of diplomacy. From McCain, we see a highly moralized foreign policy, where right and wrong are clearly demarcated and there is little room for nuance.

Obama views the world very differently. It’s fairly easy to speculate that his multi-racial and multi-national background, as well as the time he spent in Indonesia as a child, gave him a certain sense of the world and comfort with people from many different cultural backgrounds. In this view, it seems he sees strength from open-mindedness and discussion and the embrace of flexibility. It also seems that he favors more concrete and limited policy goals that still keep national security and interest as their primary concerns. This focus on Afghanistan over Iraq and the destruction of Al-Qaeda over democratization, may preview a stricter definition of national interest than is usually assumed of the stereotypically “nation-building” Democrats. Obama seems to view the world in shades of gray that we must muddle through by holding our cards close to our chest, while still reaching out to engage those who today are enemies, but tomorrow may be friends. Only through proper engagement can we encourage others to change themselves.

Style contrasts at the debates were equally as apparent as the differences in outlook. McCain did not present himself well, something I’m sure his campaign will work on for next time. He seemed crouched over the podium, avoiding eye contact with Obama and talking to the moderator rather than the audience. He looked ill-at-ease onstage, especially in comparison to Obama. McCain presented an image of a cranky grandfather, an image I’m sure his campaign is horrified to see on the television screen.

Obama’s main problem in the debate was less an issue of image than his surprising lack of confidence in responding to questions. Rather than the usual inspiring oratory, Obama tended to answer questions and then mumble the endings. Despite his definitively more impressive physical presence, his weak rhetoric left much lacking. For a country desperately needing leadership, Obama failed to decisively answer the call. Both campaigns will surely draw lessons from this debate for the next two, and here’s hoping that one of them will be able to inspire the full confidence of the American people.

Regarding overall outcome, I would call it an unimpressive tie. Though some substantive remarks were made and the debate sure beat the Kerry-Bush ones, it lacked passion and leadership from all quarters. Neither candidate answered the call to present a coherent and substantive strategy for maintaining, or changing, America’s place in the world. But there’s still time before election day, right?