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Debating To Nowhere

“Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right.” – H. L. Mencken

October 8, 2008
by Rob Lafferty

The first presidential debate and the only vice-presidential debate are both over – but in one sense, they never really happened at all.

There was little debating to be heard at either event, but plenty of scripted political theatre at both. In the September presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer repeatedly had to ask John McCain and Barack Obama to answer his questions, as both men kept shifting the subject of their response to a more comfortable topic. At the VP debate, Sarah Palin told everyone straight up that she wouldn't be doing any debating that night.

"I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also," she replied as she ignored a question about McCain's record on deregulation of the banking and mortgage systems.

All four candidates acted out their roles as expected. Joe Biden talked about the failures of the Bush administration while Palin preferred to talk about the future as she and McCain envision it to be. McCain persistently attacked every possible weakness of his opponent, real or imaginary; Obama did a nice job of balancing offense and defense and just generally keeping his cool. Everybody lied a little but they all were polite while doing it. And just for the record – the Republicans lied a little more often. They told bigger lies, too.

McCain was correct when he stated that violence has dropped in Iraq. He kept insisting "the surge is working" and gave credit to "our brilliant General Petraeus" for what McCain considers "progress in the central front of the War on Terror." McCain never mentioned that violence started dropping as soon as we started paying off the "Sons of Iraq" – the same Sunni militia groups that our military called "insurgents" just a year ago. We continue to pay cash each week to some 100,000 men in Iraq who serve as the local militia. The militias have been effective at reducing the level of violence in the cities, but they were also the cause of much of that violence before US dollars started flowing their way. None of that was mentioned by either candidate.

All this sounds very familiar, and has the ring of doom to it; many more lives will be lost in Iraq if McCain becomes our next War President. But an Obama presidency wouldn't mean the end of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. US troops – and our paid mercenaries, who are called "contractors" in America because "mercenary" is an ugly word – will be dying in Iraq for at least another two years from today no matter who becomes the next president.

In May of 2007, 126 US soldiers died in Iraq. We lost 25 people last month. That's an 80 percent improvement from one perspective; from a different point of view, it's another two dozen men and women who died somewhere in Iraq in a place they never should have been. McCain showed that he still believes that some kind of "victory" is possible in Iraq; in his view, the lower death toll is an encouraging sign.

McCain and Palin both made clear their opinion that US military commanders will decide when the Iraqi government is a functional body that can effectively govern the country. The Iraqi people have a different attitude regarding our military presence and authority; a huge majority wants us out of their country as soon as possible. Obama and Biden seem to be more in agreement with the Iraqi point of view than with McCain's vision of their future.

Unlike Iraq, the fighting in Afghanistan has no foreseeable end, as history has proven many times before. Our allies in the coalition are quickly losing faith in any military solution to the influence of the Taliban and Al-Queda in the mountain regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Coalition forces lost 232 soldiers in 2007, the most losses in one year since the fighting began in 2001. By mid-September of 2008 that same number of troops had already died in combat, with more to come as the fighting continues.

But McCain is confident that our brilliant General Petraeus can change all of that and lead us to victory in Afghanistan. Obama seems confident that shifting enough troops out of Iraq into Afghanistan will allow us to confront Al-Queda directly and defeat them there. Neither one of them has ever stated what they must surely know: as long as the Taliban are a social and political force in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, they will use terrorism as a tool against Western influences anywhere – and the Taliban cannot be defeated by any military strategy short of genocide.

McCain seems to believe in the idea of putting the right person in the right place at the right time as both a military strategy and a management style. That approach works in the military but has never been sustained in political history because politicians and the people they appoint come and go fairly quickly. Only rarely does it work as a long-term strategy in the business world, where the players have longer careers.

Richard Nixon believed in that same "czarist" management style of giving great authority to certain individuals who then override the laws of the land. It cost Nixon his office. Ronald Reagan was a believer, too, in what has come to be called a "unitary executive" theory of running government. Unlike Nixon, however, Reagan kept his office while the men he delegated power to were being tried in court for high crimes and felonies.

Barack Obama continued to avoid the trap of offering detailed proposals or firm policies. Most politicians do that well, but most of them do it to avoid accountability for the consequences of indifferent planning. Obama seems to understand that effective solutions must be flexible in the face of changing conditions, and he's taking a risk by trying to articulate that approach without sounding evasive. He sent those signals throughout the debate – that he will follow Albert Einstein' advice and approach our problems from a different perspective.

Of course, Obama wants to be a Leader, too, if given the chance. Despite the fact that Strong Leaders have historically done more damage than good to the nations they Lead, most voters still crave the comfort of having a Strong Leader in the White House. Obama showed enough strength to reassure a lot of doubtful folks that he can Lead the Nation towards the changes they want. If he does win this fall, however, his Leadership Plan is almost certain to change before next summer.

As I write this, Obama and McCain are preparing for their second debate on Tuesday night, a "town hall" format with actual questions from actual Americans, who will be carefully chosen. Their questions will come from within the boundaries of accepted political discourse, which seldom includes the true heart of any issue.

Viewers can expect to see McCain crank up the attack language at least one notch, while Obama will start pointing out more of McCain's record on economic and social issues. It's unlikely that you'll hear specific details about how the $700 billion economic bailout plan – or one trillion, or whatever unbelievable amount it turns out to be – should be structured.

George W. Bush made his position regarding the Wall Street economic crisis very clear: a few greedy real estate brokers wrote a whole lot of bad mortgages for high-risk borrowers who defaulted those mortgages. Lenders were forced to foreclose on a lot of folks and the repercussions nearly toppled the entire American economy. But Bush still insists that our economy is fundamentally sound, and McCain continued to voice that same opinion until about two weeks ago.

I'm not an economics expert, so those positions seem contradictory to me. Apparently I'm not alone in my lack of expertise – according to the usual media pundits, none of them really understand how the finance system works anymore, and they haven't found anyone else who can explain how it works.

So on the evening of the second debate you won't hear that our government will let the mortgage companies who took a foolish risk go under while protecting homeowners who can't make their payments. You will hear that our government must protect Main Street by bailing out Wall Street, because the reality of the free market is that the biggest dogs always eat first. You'll hear from both candidates a variation of trickle-down economics as usual; not more of the same failed policies and practices, but a new variety based on old principles that always favor existing power and accumulated wealth.

I'm hoping that we'll get to hear some Truth. It could happen, I suppose...