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Economy, foreign policy tackled at debate

OXFORD, Miss. (BP)–The presidential debate season opened with a discussion of foreign policy on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford Sept. 26. The debate began, though, with some last-minute questions on the economy as Congress worked to reach a bailout plan for the nation’s financial markets.

Sen. John McCain had suspended his campaign two days prior to the debate to return to Washington and address the growing financial crisis, but he agreed to appear in Mississippi after leaving the debate plans up in the air until Friday morning.

Jim Lehrer of the “NewsHour” on PBS moderated the session and began with a question about where the candidates stood on the financial recovery plan. Sen. Barack Obama said the nation is “going through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

“Now, we also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down,” Obama said.

The Democrat said Congress should move swiftly and wisely to propose solutions that would protect taxpayers, specifically middle-class Americans who are concerned about their retirement savings and their ability to send their children to college.

McCain commended Republicans and Democrats for sitting down together to develop a solution to what he called the greatest fiscal crisis “in our time.”

“But I want to emphasize one point to all Americans tonight. This isn’t the beginning of the end of this crisis. This is the end of the beginning, if we come out with a package that will keep these institutions stable. And we’ve got a lot of work to do,” McCain said.

The debate continued with McCain and Obama discussing how the economic problem started and how they would work to end it.

“My attitude is, we’ve got to grow the economy from the bottom up,” Obama said. “What I’ve called for is a tax cut for 95 percent of working families, 95 percent. And that means that the ordinary American out there who’s collecting a paycheck every day, they’ve got a little extra money to be able to buy a computer for their kid, to fill up on this gas that is killing them.”

McCain noted that he has fought against excessive government spending his entire career, including taking a tough line against pork-barrel spending and earmarks.

“Now, Senator Obama didn’t mention that, along with his tax cuts, he is also proposing some $800 billion in new spending on new programs,” McCain said. “Now, that’s a fundamental difference between myself and Senator Obama. I want to cut spending. I want to keep taxes low. The worst thing we could do in this economic climate is to raise people’s taxes.”

After a lengthy discussion of the economy, Lehrer asked both candidates what they believe are the lessons learned from the war in Iraq. McCain said the initial success in Baghdad in 2003 was followed by mismanagement that ultimately was corrected by a surge in troops and a fundamental change in strategy.

“I think the lessons of Iraq are very clear that you cannot have a failed strategy that will then cause you to nearly lose a conflict,” McCain said. “… And thanks to this great general, David Petraeus, and the troops who serve under him, they have succeeded. And we are winning in Iraq, and we will come home. And we will come home as we have when we have won other wars and not in defeat.”

Obama said the first question was whether the United States should have gone into the war in the first place, and he reiterated how he was against the war from the start.

“We hadn’t caught bin Laden. We hadn’t put al-Qaeda to rest, and as a consequence, I thought that it was going to be a distraction,” Obama said. “… And I wish I had been wrong for the sake of the country and they had been right, but that’s not the case. We’ve spent over $600 billion so far, soon to be $1 trillion. We have lost over 4,000 lives.”

McCain responded, “The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not. The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind.”

The candidates also discussed Afghanistan, agreeing on the need for more troops and a new strategy to fight the Taliban resurgence. They sparred on what to do with Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have safe havens and the government has not cooperated with the United States in rooting them out. Lehrer then asked the candidates their opinions on the threat from Iran.

“My reading of the threat from Iran,” McCain said, “is that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the state of Israel and to other countries in the region because the other countries in the region will feel a compelling requirement to acquire nuclear weapons as well.” McCain called for “significant meaningful, painful sanctions on the Iranians that I think could have a beneficial effect.”

Obama said, “Ironically, the single thing that has strengthened Iran over the last several years has been the war in Iraq. Iraq was Iran’s mortal enemy. That was cleared away. And what we’ve seen over the last several years is Iran’s influence grow. They have funded Hezbollah, they have funded Hamas, they have gone from zero centrifuges to 4,000 centrifuges to develop a nuclear weapon.”

In addition to tougher sanctions, Obama said he would engage in direct diplomacy with Iran. McCain took issue, saying such talks with Iran’s president would legitimize his illegal behavior.

“Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a ‘stinking corpse’ and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments,” McCain said. “This is dangerous. It isn’t just naive; it’s dangerous. And so we just have a fundamental difference of opinion.”

On the subject of Russia, Obama said the way the country has behaved lately “demands a sharp response from the international community and our allies,” but he emphasized that the United States “can’t return to a Cold War posture with respect to Russia” and must recognize some areas of common interest such as nuclear proliferation.

“It was very clear, the Russian intentions towards Georgia. They were just waiting to seize the opportunity,” McCain said. “So, this is a very difficult situation. We want to work with the Russians. But we also have every right to expect the Russians to behave in a fashion and keeping with a country who respects international boundaries and the norms of international behavior.”

Lehrer asked the candidates about the likelihood of another 9/11-type attack on the United States, and both men said they believe the nation is safer now than in 2001 but Americans still have a “long way to go” in shoring up their national security.

In his closing remarks, Obama said as president he would improve America’s standing in the world by sending a message that “we are going to invest in issues like education, we are going to invest in issues that relate to how ordinary people are able to live out their dreams.”

McCain closed by saying, “I guarantee you, as president of the United States, I know how to heal the wounds of war, I know how to deal with our adversaries, and I know how to deal with our friends.”

A vice presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press. For a complete transcript of the first presidential debate, visit www.olemiss.edu/debate.

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