I got to see a little of the first presidential debate last night, and I now think that McCain has a big problem.
All told, I thought both parties did well in the debate, but I couldn't shake the impression that, despite all of the contrived controversy, there's not much daylight between these guys:
Both want to get the government involved in promoting alternative energy, both for national security purposes and to combat global warming, McCain is just a little more bullish on nuclear and drilling than Obama who supports both, just to a lessor degree.
Both agree that we must downsize our presence in Iraq (after winning a clear victory), the only debate is whether we can do so in sixteen months or not. Obama thinks we can, but McCain is not so optimistic. Regardless, it's a moot point because even Obama reserves the right to adjust his timetable based on circumstances in the field, and he agrees that we cannot leave irresponsibly and return Iraq to Al-Qaeda.
Both agree that Iran cannot be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon, the only debate is the extent to which we should engage in diplomacy before bombing them. Presumably, Obama would sit down across from Ahmadinejad and tell him directly that he's going to bomb him unless he complies, while McCain would delegate that conversation to his Secretary of State.
Both agree that the government needs to actively interfere in the markets by adopting a hugely expensive bailout package. Their only debate is...well...I'm not even sure what they are debating on this one, but it is clearly inconsequential. Their joint statement of last week makes it clear that they agree on the substantive issues.
In short, there are only two areas where I see major difference between Obama and McCain. The first is on the issue of taxes. McCain argues that he would cut taxes, but any thinking person knows that either taxes must go up, or the welfare state must be dismantled, and I'm not betting on the latter. So, it will be all but impossible for McCain to cut taxes, his rhetoric notwithstanding. Electing McCain will keep taxes at just about present levels, at best.
By contrast, Obama argues the he would raise taxes on the richest by 5% by increasing their combined income and FICA tax burden by about 30% over present levels, all while cutting taxes for the remaining 95% of the population. But Obama has also acknowledged that raising taxes on the wealthy during a recession would only aggravate its effects, and so he has stated that he won't do it until the economy recovers. Given that we seem to be entering an extended recession driven be demographic considerations more than anything else, the fact is that Obama will almost certainly not succeed in raising taxes, at least not during his first term. Thus, electing Obama will also keep taxes at just about present levels.
So, despite the rhetoric, neither is going to be able to tinker much with present tax policy, at least not during their first term.
The other area where Obama and McCain truly seem to disagree is on the appointment of Supreme Court justices. Obama has stated that he is more inclined than McCain to appoint justices who are willing to substitute their judgement for that of the electorate on social issues. But is this really the case? Well, there's no way to tell, though I suspect that Obama's appointments would be more conservative than most people anticipate, while McCain's would be more liberal than expected.
In short, putting all the rhetoric and cheap shots aside, the debate made it clear to me that there's not much difference between these guys. Reading between the lines, McCain seems to be arguing that he and Obama agree on most issues of great importance, but we should vote for him he's more capable of getting things done given his superior experience and history of bipartisanship. By contrast, Obama is arguing that he agrees with McCain on most issues of great importance, but we should vote for him because he's not a Republican.
Both arguments are weak. But regardless, if the American people can expect the same policy outcomes regardless of which man gets elected, then this election ultimately comes down to a personality contest. And, on that count, Obama clearly wins, Sarah Palin notwithstanding.