Judging from the media coverage, the only Americans who care about Wednesday night’s presidential debate must be children. Only a child would reduce such an event to a win-or-lose contest. Only a child would relish silly sound bites with nothing to back them up. Only a child would be titillated by repeated (and irrelevant) mentions of an Ohio man who chatted briefly with Barack Obama at one of his campaign stops.
The object of the debate, as I see it, was not to establish a winner or loser. It was not a high school debating contest, after all. The real objective was to shed light on the conflicting views of the two presidential candidates, in order to help voters make an informed decision on Nov. 4. And if you listened carefully (ignoring John McCain’s many theatrical distractions) you could see a clear distinction.
I gathered from the debate that as president, McCain (photo at right) would adopt a scatter-shot approach to issues, venturing into state ownership of home mortgages on the one hand and slashing social programs on the other. (I have a personal interest in McCain’s philosophy because he took the trouble to remind me that he voted against the prescription drug plan that has been a lifesaver for me and many other older Americans. I infer from this that he would not look kindly on entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.)
If you asked McCain, he would probably define himself as a Reagan conservative, but his proposals give the lie to that claim. He is simply a champion of the rich and powerful who despises people he would probably describe in private as “losers.” He is also a spinner of tall tales. One of his most fantastic claims is that he will balance the budget (now half a trillion dollars in the red) by the end of his first term. For him to do that, he would have to inflict unprecedented misery on the vast majority of America’s residents. (He claims he can do it while lowering taxes across the board – a promise for which he should be Baker Acted.) McCain would provide a cornucopia of tax breaks for businesses and wealthy individuals but order “a spending freeze” on programs that benefit the less fortunate members of society. From all of these threats, the media came away with one cherished memory, McCain’s prepackaged quip: “I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.” How helpful is that? I have always known McCain is not George Bush. He is shorter, stubbier and grayer than Bush, for one thing. But as a senator, he voted with Bush 90 percent of the time, and he professes the same bellicose foreign policies and ruinous domestic ideas. McCain may not look like George Bush, but he sure acts like George Bush.
Despite his reluctance to spend money helping working Americans, McCain explicitly promised to provide financial assistance to a man named Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (with Obama at left), who said he wants to buy a plumbing business in Ohio. Mispronouncing the man’s name as Wurzelburger and dubbing him “Joe the Plumber,” McCain cited him repeatedly as an example of the “average American” who would be hurt by Barack Obama’s tax plan. Obama tried to refute the accusation but with few details about Wurzelbacher’s finances to go on, he was not very convincing. At that point, Obama and McCain got caught up in the details of their respective tax and health proposals, and left me scratching my head. But the media immediately pounced on Joe the Plumber, and – from the ensuing interviews – I was able to find out what Wurzelbacher was really complaining about. He does not like Social Security and other state-run programs, and he sees the graduated income tax as unfair. He doesn’t understand why anyone should pay a higher tax rate because “he works harder and earns more.” Wurzelbacher is not alone in that view. The argument surfaces from time to time. You may remember that America rejected flat-tax proposals from previous presidential candidates Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. Bush also talked about a flatish kind of tax, but never followed through. McCain at one time advocated a consumption-based flat tax, but I haven’t heard him mention it recently. Maybe he will bring it up again. He is apt to propose anything at this stage. However. I doubt the idea would fly. The graduated income tax has been the law of the land since 1913 – despite repeated attempts to get rid of it.
In contrast to McCain, Obama clearly and calmly outlined the approach he has advocated for the past two years. He emphasized plans for a comprehensive energy policy to end America’s dependence on Mid-East oil and provide millions of jobs; universal health care coverage; quality education from preschool through college; and cost-saving efficiencies to pay for any new initiatives. His short-term response to the current economic collapse would include infrastructure development and emergency tax relief (especially to families earning less than $250,000 a year). In short, he proposes to rebuild the American economy from the bottom up so that prosperity would spread to the top layers of the socioeconomic pyramid, instead of continuing the debunked Bush-McCain vision of “trickle-down economics.”
I will be surprised if you hear any of this in the media coverage now under way. The giggling commentators are much too captivated by that sound bite about McCain not being President Bush and the nonsensical discussion about Joe Whatsisname. As for who won, frankly, my dear…..