Obama, McCain Clash Over Economic Policy, National Security

Sept. 26 (Bloomberg) — Barack Obama and John McCain clashed over taxes, spending and the war in Iraq as they confronted each other in their first presidential debate.

An increasingly heated series of exchanges followed an opening discussion in which they largely agreed on the need for quick congressional action on a financial-markets rescue plan that also protects taxpayers.

Obama went on the offense first, criticizing economic policies “promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain” that he said led to the crisis in U.S. financial markets. Those policies “shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most wealth and somehow prosperity will trickle down. It hasn’t worked.”

McCain said Obama would be unable to come up with a bipartisan economic plan for the nation, accusing the Illinois senator of pushing for higher taxes and more government spending.

“Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the Senate,” McCain, an Arizona senator, said. “It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.”

Tonight’s forum at the University of Mississippi in Oxford was the first time the two candidates were taking each other on from the same stage. Analysts said the unusual dynamics of the race — including the lack of a presidential or vice presidential incumbent for the first time since 1952 –heightened the stakes.

Economics

While the 90-minute debate was originally intended to focus on foreign policy, the discussion began on economic issues because of the U.S. financial crisis.

The two candidates largely agreed on the elements needed in the rescue plan: oversight of its implementation, a way for tax money to be recovered, and limits on compensation for executives of companies taking part. They said lawmakers should quickly pass legislation.

“We have to make sure that we protect taxpayers as we engage in this rescue,” Obama said.

“We’re not talking about failures of institutions on Wall Street, we’re talking about failures on main street,” McCain said.

Asked whether they would support the rescue plan still being negotiated in Washington, Obama said he hasn’t seen the final legislation said. McCain said, “I hope so. Sure.”

Foreign Policy

It was 36 minutes into the 90 minute debate before the candidates turned to foreign policy and national security, two subjects that brought some of the sharpest exchanges.

Obama said McCain’s support of Bush’s policies on Iraq diverted U.S. attention from the pursuit al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

“We’ve spent over $600 billion, we’ve lost over 4,000 live and al-Qaeda is stronger than ever,” Obama said. “We took our eye off the ball.”

McCain countered saying the issue facing the next president is not whether to go into Iraq but how to win the war. He criticized Obama for advocating pulling troops out of the country.

“If we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and adopt Senator Obama’s plan, we will have a wider war,” he said.

When the subject turned to Pakistan, the two candidates reversed roles.

Obama, who usually stresses diplomatic engagement, repeated his support for unilateral military strikes on al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan if the Pakistanis fail to act against them.

Pakistan Strike

McCain criticized him, saying it was a bad idea to discuss such operations openly.

McCain, seeking to emphasize his experience, repeatedly sought to portray his opponent as lacking understanding on national security issues.

During an exchange on Iraq policy, he said Obama “doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.” Obama shot back: “I absolutely understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”

Later, when the subject shifted to Pakistan, McCain said: “I don’t think Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan.”

McCain said Iran would pose an “existential threat to the state of Israel” if it were to get nuclear weapons. McCain reiterated his call for a so-called league of democracies to help isolate Iran and prod its regime to change.

“We cannot allow a second holocaust,” he said.

Sanctions on Iran

Obama countered that it would be necessary to “engage in tough direct diplomacy” with Iran because isolation has not worked. He said any sanctions policy on Iran must include the Russians and Chinese “that are, I think Senator McCain would agree, not democracies.”

The debate had been in limbo until this morning. Two days ago, McCain said the forum should be delayed until a deal was reached in Congress to address the financial crisis. Obama rebuffed the proposal, saying he believed the debate was more important than ever. McCain decided earlier today to participate even though the rescue plan remained unsettled.

Unlike past debates that were structured to allow no interplay between candidates, Obama and McCain will each have two minutes to answer questions and then five minutes for further discussion between them. McCain and Obama had a heated exchange over the Iraq war, interrupting each other frequently to clarify their positions.

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