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Candidates Face-Off During Second Presidential Debate

October 7, 2008 at 10:40 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And with that, the presidential debate has ended. And now the first reactions to it go to — we’ll get from syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, you’re on.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I didn’t think it was a great debate. They have CD-ROMs in their head, and they spit out the old answers. Nonetheless, I guess, if you have to pick an edge, I’d say the edge went to Obama.

JIM LEHRER: What would you say?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, Jim, last week at a Colorado town meeting late last week, John McCain was asked by a supporter, “When are you going to take the gloves off?” Because they’re concerned that he was trailing in the polls. And John McCain said, “How about Tuesday night?”

And I don’t think the gloves came off. I mean, there was no mention of Reverend Wright. There was no mention of Bill Ayers. There was no mention of sort of what had been the subtext of the McCain campaign.

I think that, if John McCain was trailing going into tonight, there was nothing that happened tonight, certainly, that changed that arrangement.

JIM LEHRER: Why did you think Obama got the edge, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think, first, in style. He has a calmness and a fluidity that I think is easy to be around. And it provokes a certain amount of reassurance, so I think it’s easy to imagine him as president. And for the leading candidate, that’s the most important thing.

The atmosphere is frosty between them, so you don’t get a lot of human back-and-forth.

On policy, I thought they were both reasonably fluid, I thought Obama a little more fluid. The only new policy we got the entire night, as far as I could tell, was John McCain embracing an idea that Martin Feldstein of Harvard and Glenn Hubbard of Columbia have come up with, which is to reinforce mortgages as a way to solve the crisis.

The other problems — the other policies they gave were the standard policies, which, frankly, ignored the new economic situation.

Nonetheless, in general, I think, in ease and comfort and in a sense of being able to adapt to a changing world, I just thought Obama seemed more confident, more at home in the times. McCain sometimes seemed a little labored.

JIM LEHRER: Did you hear anything new, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought the initiative — I didn’t think John McCain explained it well. I mean, I think it’s a more interesting initiative than he gave it tonight.

The question, Jim, about what sacrifices would you ask of the American people, and John McCain was tone deaf on that. He said, “We’d have to eliminate earmarks, I’ve got to tell you that.”

And I just thought it was one to tee up — I mean, both of these guys are still insisting they’re going to go forward on January 20th. We’re sitting in the middle of an economic crisis that matches the Great Depression, and they’re still talking on a platform that they each laid out six months ago.

And, you know, I thought it would be a chance that, look, this is going to be tough, folks. It’s going to be hell. And I’m going to ask the best of every one of you, and every one of you is going to share the burden.

He walked up to it, Obama.

JIM LEHRER: Obama did.

MARK SHIELDS: A little bit. But neither one of them, I thought, rose to the challenge of leveling with the American people of what the sacrifices are, because they’re going to be enormous.

JIM LEHRER: And those questions now have been asked of both of them many times.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I guess they just don’t want to take the risk. Another very good question concerned Pakistan. Would you go in and invade Pakistan’s sovereignty to chase down al-Qaida, Taliban, Osama bin Laden? And that’s actually a tough issue, and you can see an argument on both sides.

And they both typically reduced it to a level of generality, which was impossible to disagree with them. And I think that was their instinct both nights. I guess, if you’re a politician in the last month of a campaign, that’s what you do. But, you know, you hope for a little more.

JIM LEHRER: Did you go — going into this, Mark, you can tell us now — I won’t tell anybody — David and I won’t tell anybody — but did you expect McCain to, whatever the question was, to really take on Obama’s character…

MARK SHIELDS: I thought he’d be more aggressive. I really did. And, I mean, I didn’t feel that he was. I thought, if anything, he was more aggressive in the Oxford, Mississippi, debate than he was tonight.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think about it?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree. A few jabs, but no big surprises, no big attacks, nothing that would even potentially change the momentum of the race.

JIM LEHRER: So clearly they’ve made a decision not to do that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think they decided — probably correctly — in a town hall format you just lay out your case. And he did it fine, but nothing that would involve any risk.

Mixed reaction from speechwriters

David Brooks
New York Times
I didn't think it was a great debate. They have CD-ROMs in their head, and they spit out the old answers.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, all right.

Into the mix now, let's go with two former presidential speechwriters, Michael Gerson, who worked in the George W. Bush White House, and Terry Edmonds, who was -- who did the same in the Clinton administration.

Michael Gerson, did you hear anything new today that you -- tonight that you hadn't heard before?

MICHAEL GERSON, Former Speechwriter, George W. Bush Administration: Well, I guess I disagree pretty strongly. I think McCain tonight had to be tough on Obama without seeming snide. It was a difficult setting to do that, kind of like trying to have a knife fight at a PTA meeting. That's the difficulty here.

But he did it pretty well. He had at least a dozen tough, specific, policy-oriented attacks, not Wright and Ayers, but issues about the economy, about national security judgment. And they were, you know, generally unrefuted. I thought that was pretty effective.

He also had to say something -- you know, the other standard he had to meet was to say something new on the economy, because he has to, you know, change the mix here on the issue that's most important to people.

And, of course, he was promising something that's pretty extraordinary for the U.S. government to come in and help people renegotiate their mortgages and lower their monthly payments. That actually communicates, I think, to a lot of people.

So by those two standards, which is what I thought before the debate he had to do, I think he did it. Does that mean that this is going to change everything about the election? I kind of doubt that.

Sometimes an election is like trying to steer a glacier. You know, I mean, they're big events you don't control. And I think he's been a victim of that recently. But what he could control tonight I think he did a pretty good job.

JIM LEHRER: Terry Edmonds, how did you see it?

TERRY EDMONDS, Former Speechwriter, Clinton Administration: I think the real winner tonight was the American people, because it was a substantive debate. I think it was notable for what we didn't hear, which was the kind of character assassinations that Sarah Palin has been conducting over the last week.

And I think that Senator Obama continued to demonstrate that he has the gravitas to be president, that he understands the issues, and that he is empathetic to what the American people are going through.

I think we've finally reached a point in American politics where people are -- enough people have had enough of the same -- the eight years that we've gone through that they're going to vote their self-interest and not be distracted by diversionary character assassinations.

JIM LEHRER: Terry, what about Michael's point, about the housing proposal, the new proposal that did come from John McCain?

TERRY EDMONDS: I think that was a good proposal, but it wasn't explained fully. And I think -- you know, I don't think it moved the needle at all.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, on foreign policy issues, did you hear anything new there? Was it just kind of each man repeating what they've said before?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I'm always slightly disappointed in these settings, because McCain doesn't take advantage enough of, I think, some fairly unreasonable positions that Obama takes.

I mean, he argues every time that the reason that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is because we didn't talk to them. That's a deeply naive belief, I think a laughable one.

He said some things on genocide, when McCain could have said, "Well, if you had pursued your early plan in the primaries and withdrawn precipitously from Iraq, many people predicted genocide in that country."

So I do think, on a number of those foreign policy issues, I always wish that he would be a little bit more aggressive in going after some of Obama's positions. And, you know, you didn't see that tonight. He did, as he always does, go after the surge and, I think, fairly effectively on that.

JIM LEHRER: Terry, did you hear anything new or was it more of the same? And what did you -- how do you react to what Michael just said?

TERRY EDMONDS: Well, I think it was pretty much more of the same. I will say that I thought that Senator Obama was a very effective counter-puncher tonight.

For example, when Senator McCain talked about him, you know, not talking softly and carrying a big stick, he came back with, you know, reminding him of what he said about bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. And I thought that was a very effective counterpunch.

So I think that every time that Senator McCain tried to attack or belittle Senator Obama, he came back very strongly.

I will say, too, that I've thought that, from time to time, Senator McCain reverted back to his tendency to belittle Senator Obama. And I thought, you know, when he referred to him one time as "that one" and when he also said that he didn't understand foreign policy, I think that that is definitely wrong, and it made -- it really didn't help McCain.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? How do you see that, Michael? You don't think those kind of hits by McCain on Obama do any good for McCain?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think he had to do that. He had to raise questions about Obama's judgment and his views. I mean, there's no question.

He's in a -- the natural state in this race has McCain slightly behind. He has to make up ground. I think he did much of that tonight, talking about small businesses, for example, made a very comprehensive case, both on mandates and taxes, that Obama's policies, economic policies would be -- would be pretty disastrous for that group of Americans, large group of Americans.

There wasn't much response, I don't think, effective response on that. So he did get in some hits here.

There were occasionally good counterpunching. I agree that Obama, whenever you see him in this setting, you come away thinking, "He could be president of the United States."

He has the skills to be president of the United States. He's fluent and cool. He doesn't have an emotional connection with the listener, but he certainly seems to understand every side of the issues.

So by that standard, I think he does well in these debates. But I think McCain also made his points tonight.


Well, look, now let's go to the scene in Nashville and to Jeffrey Brown for that.

Gloves stayed on

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[I]f John McCain was trailing going into tonight, there was nothing that happened tonight, certainly, that changed that arrangement.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, Jim, let's go back to Belmont University and to two National Public Radio reporters who were there: Audie Cornish, who's been covering the Obama campaign; and Scott Horsley, who's been on the trail with McCain.

Well, you both have been out on the trail. And I want to ask you if what you heard tonight -- I'll start with you, Audie Cornish -- if what you heard tonight jibed with the kind of things you've been hearing out on the trail or were there some surprises?

AUDIE CORNISH, National Public Radio: It very much jibes with what you've been hearing on the trail. In fact, the very first question was almost a gimme to Barack Obama, because the economy has been the one issue he's been hammering on the most.

In every state we've been in the last few days, this has been the thing he's trying to keep the focus on. And the whole first portion of the debate was about that issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Scott Horsley, what about with John McCain? We were just talking about one new thing we had all heard was this plan for buying up bad mortgages. Did that strike you or any other surprises?

SCOTT HORSLEY, National Public Radio: That is definitely a new plan. It's interesting that Senator McCain is coming out with that plan to help homeowners at this relatively late date.

But what struck me was that late last week Senator McCain was asked by a supporter when he was going to take the gloves off. And he hinted that he might be doing so tonight. And I thought he sort of had the same gloves on that he's had on throughout the campaign.

He continued to hit Obama on taxes. He continued to suggest that he was going to raise taxes on the middle class, something that the Obama camp denied.

But I didn't think he really landed a lot of new punches tonight. And I didn't think that he really had that big stick of Teddy Roosevelt's that he was talking about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Scott, what was the campaign saying to you going in here about what it wanted to accomplish and how it might go about doing that?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, what the campaign has been trying to do all this week, really beginning over the weekend with Governor Palin and again with Senator McCain in Albuquerque yesterday, is to change the subject away from the economy -- they know that's Barack Obama's strong suit -- and to raise doubts about whether he is too risky to be president.

It's tough to level those kind of hardening charges, though, when Senator Obama is standing right by your side and when you're in a room full of people.

I think what Senator McCain did tonight was he showed why the town hall is a good venue for him. He obviously has an empathy for the people in the room. You saw that especially with the Navy chief towards the end of the session, that kind of warmth that he always exhibits in town halls.

But in terms of really taking the wind out of Senator Obama's sails, I'm not sure that they scored a lot of points tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Audie Cornish, what was the Obama campaign telling you about what it wanted to get out of tonight?

AUDIE CORNISH: Well, they were actually lowering expectations the last few days, making sure to make the point that, yes, we know this is John McCain's preferred style of debate.

But the other thing that that they were doing is they've spent the last two days warning the public, warning voters that there was an onslaught of attacks coming. And fully two hours before the debate, the Obama campaign released a 16-point memo titled debunking, you know, myths from John McCain.

So they were fully prepared for a level of attack that I don't really think I saw here tonight, and especially I think they were anticipating maybe some personal attacks. And that's another thing that we didn't see.

And so we didn't hear maybe what Senator Obama's rebuttals would have been to that. And so things really did stay on the issues, although towards the second half I think the foreign policy segment wandered a little bit. And I'm not quite sure what the preparation there was for the Obama campaign.

Gauging voter reaction

Audie Cornish
National Public Radio
[Obama's campaign] fully prepared for a level of attack that I don't really think I saw here tonight, and especially I think they were anticipating maybe some personal attacks. And that's another thing that we didn't see.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Audie, starting -- it's been over all of about 10 minutes now. You're probably already getting blasted with e-mails. And I don't know if you walked through spin alley on the way outside.

But do you already have a sense of what the campaign -- let's start with you, Audie, on the Obama campaign -- what are they saying out of this? What do they want to promote or what do they want to push back on?

AUDIE CORNISH: Well, it seems like right away they have to run some defense on the tax policy issue. That's something that Senator McCain really went after Senator Obama on.

And I saw e-mail after e-mail -- I mean, literally every 30 seconds, with clips saying "fact check on such-and-such tax vote." This is something that Obama has been really trying to stress, that he's not that scary, taxing liberal that people think that he may be or that he thinks the Republicans are portraying him as. And that's what I think we're going to hear a little more spin about later tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Scott Horsley, same question to you from the McCain side.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, I think one of the things the McCain people will be doing is trying to get some mileage out of this plan he unveiled tonight. And he really sort of snuck it in, in the middle of this debate to help ordinary homeowners.

One of the first questions we got is, how is this $700 billion bailout or rescue for the financial system going to affect ordinary Americans? And I think this is Senator McCain's response to that.

But it's an interesting setting to try to roll out a policy of that shape in a town hall debate where you're trying to score points against your opponent and keep everything in the two-minute time limit.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Scott Horsley, Audie Cornish from NPR, thanks very much.

And back to you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, thank you, Jeff.

Now, let's go back quickly to Michael Gerson and Terry Edmonds and pick up on the point that you mentioned at the very beginning, Michael, after the debate was over, whether or not what happened here tonight changes the basic race between Obama and McCain.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, the reality here is that the fundamentals of the race are now being determined by global economic events. That's not fair to John McCain. He's actually run a good campaign, better than many people thought. He's a better candidate than many people thought.

But, you know, the reality here is some things you can't control. And as John Kennedy famously said, you know, "Life isn't fair." And it may not be fair in this circumstance for John McCain.

JIM LEHRER: Terry Edmonds, how do you feel about whether anything happened here today changes things dramatically for either side?

TERRY EDMONDS: I don't think it changes anything dramatically. I would just say that the tenor of the questions just showed that the financial crisis is adding weight to this overwhelming desire for change by the American people, and it's tipping the balance in favor of Senator Obama.

So I think that he's well on his way to victory, and I think tonight was a good night for him.

Looking forward to final weeks

Scott Horsley
National Public Radio
[W]hat Senator McCain did tonight was he showed why the town hall is a good venue for him. He obviously has an empathy for the people in the room.

JIM LEHRER: Now, back to Mark and David for some closing thoughts. Barack Obama is well on his way to victory. Do you agree with Terry Edmonds?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Barack Obama is in better shape this week than he was a week ago or two weeks ago. I think this race has had too many twists and turns.

I do think that, when the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue. And when the economy is bad, voters blame the party in power. And that's what John McCain is dealing with. And he's dealing with George Bush's record.

I mean, probably the most animated he was all night was when he said, "You know who voted for the Bush-Cheney energy bill? That one!" I mean, you know, that was the most animated I saw John McCain all night.

And if either one of them says one more time $700 billion we're spending on oil, and it's going to all these terrorists, I'd like to point out that Canada is our principal supplier of oil. Saudi Arabia, which the president and other presidents, President Clinton said was a great ally, is second, and Mexico is third. I mean, so I'd just like to -- just for the sake, get that on the record.

DAVID BROOKS: A lot of money is going to hockey players.

JIM LEHRER: It's now on the record.

David, now put on the record what you think happens next. Take us from tonight to the next step in this campaign.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, on the McCain side, the one -- people said he's going to take the gloves off, he's going to go after Ayers, he's going to go personal. He decided, "I'm not going to do that. I'm going to go policy." And he had the big policy.

And I think what we'll now talk about for the next two days maybe is this mortgage policy. I mean, he's been -- McCain has been hemmed in by this idea, "Cut government, cut government, cut government." This mortgage policy is not cutting government.


DAVID BROOKS: As it's been explained by economists -- and I haven't seen the McCain proposal of it -- but it's basically we lower the value of a lot of mortgages that are now underwater and we buy them up. And as McCain said, that's expensive.

I happen to think it's a pretty good policy, because unless you stabilize the mortgages, you stabilize nothing. And that's why Martin Feldstein and Hubbard and others have proposed this idea, Republican economists.

And so -- but that was the general strategy. He said, "I'm not going to go personal. I'm going to go policy, and I'm going to go big policy. And I'm going to break out of a normal Republican small-government conservatism."

And so that was sort of a daring thing. I think that's what we'll follow up. As far as the rest goes, I still don't think McCain made a large argument about why this guy who's ahead should not be president.

JIM LEHRER: All right, we will leave it there. David, Mark, thank you both very much.

And thank you to everyone else.

And that does end our coverage of tonight's debate. The third and the last presidential debate will be next Wednesday night, a week from tomorrow, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Bob Schieffer of CBS News will be the moderator. We'll be here to broadcast that on PBS.

And, meanwhile, we'll see you online and again here tomorrow and every weeknight at our regular NewsHour time. For now, I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.