1. Senator Barack Obama’s strongest defenders, led by Andrew Sullivan, were furious at the questioning directed at Senator Obama by two of the best in the news business: ABC’s Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. In Sullivan’s words:
The loser was ABC News: one of the worst media performances I can remember — petty, shallow, process-obsessed, trivial where substantive, and utterly divorced from the actual issues that Americans want to talk about.
What really irritated Sullivan is that the early part of the debate focused on issues like Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright Jr., Obama’s association with a former leader of the radical and violent group the Weather Underground, his reluctance to wear an American flag pin on his lapel, and his comments in San Francisco about how middle-class voters are “bitter” and frustrated and “cling” to guns, religion, and xenophobia.
These issues were entirely appropriate to raise — and, in fact, several of them have not been asked of Obama before, including Obama’s relationship with William Ayers (the former leader of the Weather Underground). Obama, after all, was given a chance to respond in full, and there are few questions that should be declared out of bounds for presidential candidates. There was no “specious and gossipy trivia” (to quote the close-to-unhinged Tom Shales in Thursday’s Washington Post). And the debate did not focus exclusively on those issues; there were questions about Iraq, Iran, taxes, guns, affirmative action, and other topics. This debate, more than most, was enlightening and useful. Obama’s supporters are enraged that he would be treated like any other candidate running for president.
2. The consensus view is that the reason Obama did poorly Wednesday night is because he was on the defensive due to his recent gaffes. But let’s unpack some of the substantive policy answers Obama gave as well.
On Iraq, Obama reaffirmed a rock-hard pledge that he will withdraw our combat troops and leave no permanent bases. He is wholly uninterested in what General Petraeus or anyone else has to say on the matter of our mission; our troops are coming home, come what may. And if as a result of a precipitous withdrawal we see mass death and genocide, a revitalized al-Qaeda, a strengthened Iran, and massive instability in the region, the withdrawal would presumably continue. There is, it seems, no scenario that would cause Obama to change his mind. David Brooks of the New York Times put it well: “To pledge an automatic withdrawal is just insane. A mature politician would’ve been honest and said: I fully intend to withdraw, but I want to know what the reality is at that moment.”
3. On the matter of capital-gains taxes, ABC’s Gibson pointed out that in the past, when the rate dropped, revenues increased. And in the 1980s, when the tax was increased, revenues went down. “So why raise it at all,” Gibson asked Obama, “especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?”
Sen. Obama’s response was, “I would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness.” Obama assures us that he wants “businesses to thrive and I want people to be rewarded for their success.” But he also wants to “make sure … that our tax system is fair and that we are able to finance health care for Americans who currently don’t have it and that we’re able to invest in our infrastructure and invest in our schools.” But back to the empirical evidence: when capital-gains taxes are cut, the private economy expands. So if lowering the capital gains tax led to a stronger economy and higher revenues, Obama presumably would still oppose it on grounds of “fairness” (a concept that doesn’t help you determine what the precise tax rate ought to be). This demonstrates the depth of Obama’s animus toward the corporate world, which is the engine of prosperity for America.
4. Obama wasn’t much better in his treatment of other issues. Last night he said that a central focus of his campaign was to deliver on “middle-class tax relief.” When asked if he had just taken a pledge on not raising taxes on people making less than $200,000, Obama agreed. But later in the debate Obama admitted he would raise the cap on the payroll tax, meaning that those making more than $97,000 a year would pay higher payroll taxes. When Charles Gibson pointed out this fact to Obama and said there are “a heck of a lot of people between $97,000 and $200(,000) and $250,000” and that if you raise the payroll taxes, that will raise taxes on them, Obama said, “I would look at potentially exempting those who are in between.” But of course if he exempts all of those in between, then he’s not going to raise the payroll tax to help save Social Security. And if he doesn’t exempt all of those in between, then he’s raising taxes on those making less than $200,000.
On affirmative action, Obama was asked “how specifically would you recommend changing affirmative action policies so that affluent African Americans are not given advantages” over poor, less affluent whites (a position he had previously stated). His response was that the “the basic principle that should guide discussions” is “how do we make sure that we’re providing ladders of opportunity for people.” That’s not terribly specific. He then went on to say, “race is still a factor in our society.” This exchange followed:
SENATOR OBAMA: And I think that for universities and other institutions to say, you know, we’re going to take into account the hardships that somebody has experienced because they’re black or Latino or because they’re women…
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Even if they’re wealthy?
SENATOR OBAMA: I think that’s something that they can take into account, but it can only be in the context of looking at the whole situation of the young person. So if they look at my child and they say, you know, Malia and Sasha, they’ve had a pretty good deal, then that shouldn’t be factored in. On the other hand, if there’s a young white person who has been working hard, struggling, and has overcome great odds, that’s something that should be taken into account. So I still believe in affirmative action as a means of overcoming both historic and potentially current discrimination, but I think that it can’t be a quota system and it can’t be something that is simply applied without looking at the whole person, whether that person is black or white or Hispanic, male or female. What we want to do is make sure that people who have been locked out of opportunity are going to be able to walk through those doors of opportunity in the future.”
So Senator Obama believes in affirmative action but not in quotas to overcome “potentially current discrimination.” He believes as well that race “can’t be something that is simply applied without looking at the whole person.” But what specifically does Senator Obama have in mind when he speaks about affirmative action without quotas? And in what circumstances should we make decisions based on race? Should a middle-class black get a slot at an Ivy League university because of race if he’s in competition with, say, a lower-class Asian woman? Obama seems to believe that race can be a factor that is taken into consideration when it comes to college applications and jobs, but it shouldn’t always be a factor. And sometimes, but not always, class circumstances should trump race. It’s very hard to discern a principled position from Obama on this important matter of constitutional law.
5. On the issue of guns, Obama said, “As a general principle, I believe that the Constitution confers an individual right to bear arms. But just because you have an individual right does not mean that the state or local government can’t constrain the exercise of that right…” When asked if he still favors the registration and licensing of guns because, as Gibson pointed out, “in 1996, your campaign issued a questionnaire, and your writing was on the questionnaire that said you favored a ban on handguns,” Obama denied it:
No, my writing wasn’t on that particular questionnaire, Charlie. As I said, I have never favored an all-out ban on handguns.
But as the New York Times points out today
Politico.com recently found an amended questionnaire that [Obama] filed with [a liberal] group that year  with the same answer to the handgun question.
So contrary to what he said last night, Obama did favor banning the manufacturing, sale, and possession of handguns.
* * * *
Wednesday night’s debate was a bad one for Senator Obama, both substantively and in style. He was on the defensive because of associations he’s had, things he’s said, and positions he’s embraced. Indeed, the last six weeks have been damaging ones for him. People who were once impressed with Obama are beginning to wonder if the image he projects — post-partisan, post-ideological, post-racial, a uniquely unifying and hopeful figure for America — is deeply at odds with the man himself. As the election plays out, we will see if these concerns are valid. But it’s fair to say that for Barack Obama, the magic is gone. The videos which were so fashionable just a few weeks ago, featuring people chanting “O-ba-ma,” now seem even more weirdly cult-like, empty, and out of touch. And Democrats now find themselves on the cusp of nominating one of the most liberal and untested nominees in history — a man of obvious talents but also a man of obvious flaws.
Democrats have good reasons to be nervous.
– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.