Saturday, September 27, 2008

New York Times Politics blog
The Caucus

Check Point: The First Debate

By Julie Bosman, Jackie Calmes, Michael Luo, Larry Rohter and Matthew L. Wald

The Times is presenting its “Check Point” feature examining the policies and statements of the presidential candidates in real time tonight.

And the Number Is…
How much does the United States owe China? Senator John McCain got it right, Senator Barack Obama was wrong.

“We owe China $500 billion,” Mr. McCain said early in the debate. Near the end, Mr. Obama noted the challenges the United States faces with China and added, “they now hold a trillion dollars’ worth of our debt.”

According to the most recent data from the Treasury Department, through July, China holds $518 billion in U.S. Treasury securities.

How High?
Senator John McCain said tonight that U.S. businesses pay “the second highest business taxes in the world, 35 percent. Ireland pays 11 percent.” While 35 percent is the corporate income tax rate, few if any corporations pay that rate given tax breaks available to them. The effective tax rate is closer to 20 percent.

Senator Barack Obama, in response, said Mr. McCain is “absolutely right” that business taxes are high “on paper.” He added: “Here’s the problem ­there are so many loopholes that have been written into the tax code, oftentimes with the support of Senator McCain, that we actually see our businesses pay effectively one of the lowest tax rates in the world.” Mr. Obama has proposed closing business tax loopholes, though he hasn’t identified many specifically.

Senator John McCain plunged into the debate with a strong attack based on one of his signature issues, the requests by members of Congress for funding for pet projects that would benefit their home districts or states, also known as earmarks.

Mr. McCain charged that Mr. Obama “has asked for $932 million of earmark pork-barrel spending, nearly a million dollars for every day that he’s been in the United States Senate.” Parts of that statement are true, but others are not, and other remarks Mr. McCain made about the subject Friday night were also incorrect.

According to the calculations of fiscal watchdog groups, Mr. Obama has indeed requested that amount of funding since entering the Senate in 2005. But some of the same groups make a distinction between “pork-barrel” projects that they deem inherently wasteful, such as the now-famous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, and those projects that may have a useful purpose but which are obtained through legislative guile.

In addition, Mr. McCain erred when he said that earmarks have “tripled in the last five years.” Earmarks tripled in size over the decade between 1996 and 2005. But since then, they have actually declined, from nearly 14,000 projects worth $18.9 billion in fiscal 2005 to just over 11,500 projects valued at $16.5 billion for the fiscal year ending next week.

Finally, earmarks are, as Mr. Obama indicated, a tiny part of the federal government’s overall budget and deficit. For fiscal year 2008, President Bush asked Congress to authorize $2.9 trillion in spending, which meant a total deficit of about $240 billion. That means that even if all earmarks were eliminated, it would reduce the federal deficit for the year by less than seven percent.

What Would Henry Do?
One of the most vigorous exchanges of the evening occurred over what exactly former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said recently about negotiating with Iran. Mr. Obama cited Mr. Kissinger’s comments to bolster his defense of his earlier statement at a Democratic debate that he would be willing to sit down with the leaders of nations like Iran, Venezuela and Syria without preconditions.

“Senator McCain mentioned Henry Kissinger, who is one of his advisers, who along with five recent secretaries just said that we should meet with Iran, guess what, without preconditions,” said Mr. Obama. “This is one of your own advisers.”

Mr. McCain pushed back forcefully, saying he knew Mr. Kissinger well and insisting that Mr. Kissinger would not approve of “face to face meetings” between the president and Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad but lower level negotiations.

Mr. Obama was referring to comments made by Mr. Kissinger at a forum last week at George Washington University with several other former secretaries of state– Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, James Baker and Colin Powell.

CNN broadcaster Christiane Amanpour asked them a hypothetical, whether a message came from Iran that they were ready to negotiate, “all conditions on the table. Is the advice to the next American president to once again put conditions to expect Iran to cry uncle or to engage?”

All of them said they would engage, with Mr. Kissinger arguing:

“Well, I am in favor of negotiating with Iran. And one utility of negotiation is to put before Iran our vision of a Middle East, of a stable Middle East, and our notion on nuclear proliferation at a high enough level so that they have to study it.” But then Mr. Kissinger added, “I actually have preferred doing it at the secretary of state level,” before he trailed off.

When another CNN broadcaster, Frank Sesno, followed up, whether it should be “put at a very high level right out of the box,” Mr. Kissinger said, “Initially, yes.”

He added: “I do not believe that we can make conditions for the opening of negotiations.”

In other words, it appears that both men were right to a certain extent. Mr. Kissinger did not specify presidential-level talks, but the thrust of his comments appear consistent with what Mr. Obama has been arguing as well, insisting that his comments did not mean that he would sit down with the leader of one of these countries without any preparations, including lower level discussions.

After the debate, however, Mr. Kissinger issued a statement to the Weekly Standard backing Mr. McCain: “Senator McCain is right. I would not recommend the next president of the United States engage in talks with Iran at the Presidential level. My views on this issue are entirely compatible with the views of my friend Senator John McCain. We do not agree on everything, but we do agree that any negotiations with Iran must be geared to reality.”

Most Liberal?
According to Mr. McCain, “Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate.” The reality, however, appears to be more complex than that categorical statement would suggest. One publication that rates members of Congress gave him that description in 2007, but others disagree, and Mr. McCain himself described Mr. Obama as “a centrist” when the Democratic nominee first entered the Senate.

In January, the specialized political publication National Journal, evaluating what it regarded as important votes in the Senate last year, concluded that Mr. Obama was indeed the Senate’s most liberal member. But Congressional Quarterly, using a different index to rank members of Congress, found that Mr. Obama voted with President Bush nearly half the time, which would put him closer to Mr. McCain’s original “centrist” description.

Negotiating With Adversaries:
For over a year, the McCain campaign has sought to portray Mr. Obama as eager to meet with the heads of state of Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and other countries that the United States sees as adversaries.

On Friday night, Mr. McCain repeated the accusation, which stems from a remark Mr. Obama made early in the campaign

In a debate among Democratic candidates in July 2007, Mr. Obama was asked “would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” Mr Obama replied “I would,” adding that “the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration - is ridiculous.”

Since then, the McCain campaign has sought to blur the distinctions between “would” and “will” and to use “without preconditions” as a synonym for “unconditionally.” But in diplomatic parlance, “without preconditions” has a specific meaning: that one party does not demand concessions from the other as a price for sitting down at the table to begin to negotiate.

On Friday, Mr. McCain accused Mr. Obama of merely “parsing words” when the Democratic candidate insisted on a distinction. But Mr. Obama has been clear and consistent in saying that he would not automatically meet with the heads of state of nations that are adversaries of the United States and that preparatory spadework would be required before he as president would meet with such leaders.

“The point is that I would not refuse to meet until they agree to every position that we want,” he said in May when asked to explain his position. “But that doesn’t mean that we would not have preparation, and the preparation would involve starting with lower level diplomatic contacts, having our diplomatic corps work through with Iranian counterparts, an agenda.”

Oil and Energy:
Mr. McCain took Mr. Obama to task for voting for the 2005
energy bill, which Mr. McCain voted against. “This is a classic example of walking the walk and talking the talk,” he said. “We had an energy bill before the United States Senate. It was festooned with
Christmas-tree ornaments. It had all kinds of breaks for the oil companies — I mean billions of dollars’ worth.”

At the time, Mr. Obama said he voted for the bill because of the tax credits it included for ethanol and clean-coal facilities. But the bill actually raised taxes on the oil industry by about $300
million, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

A report in March by the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group in Washington, said that Mr. McCain’s tax plan would lower oil company taxes by nearly $4 billion.

No Hearings on Afghanistan?
Mr. McCain attacked Mr. Obama tonight for never holding any hearings on Afghanistan while chairman of the a subcommittee on European Affairs on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The crux of the argument is that Mr. Obama’s subcommittee has jurisdiction of NATO issues.

The charge is literally true, but some have argued that such a major issue would probably be taken up by the full committee. Indeed, the non-partisan,, pointed out that the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held three hearings over the past two years on Afghanistan and Mr. Obama was at one of them.

Mr. Obama claimed that Mr. McCain has said that the United States “can muddle through in Afghanistan.” That alters a critical word in a statement Mr. McCain made in Nov. 2003 to the Council on Foreign Relations, substituting “can” for “may.” The full context of Mr. McCain’s remarks suggests that he was merely describing a possible policy
outcome, rather than endorsing it:

“There has been a rise in Al Qaeda activity along the border. There has been some increase in U.S. casualties. I am concerned about it, but I’m not as concerned as I am about Iraq today, obviously, or I’d be talking about Afghanistan. But I believe that if Karzai can make the progress that he is making, that — in the long term, we may muddle through in Afghanistan.”

Tax Hikes:
Senator John McCain charged that Senator Obama voted “to increase taxes on people who make as low as $42,000 a year.”

Mr. Obama interjected, “That’s not true, John. That’ s not true.” Mr. McCain’s claim has been called “simply false” by the nonpartisan

It is based on Mr. Obama’s vote for Senate Democrats’ nonbinding budget resolution for fiscal 2009 that assumed all of President Bush’s 2001 tax cuts would expire as scheduled in 2010. But Mr. Obama has promised that he would retain all Bush tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year. Mr. Obama has proposed other tax breaks for the middle class as well. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has concluded that 95 percent of families with children would get a tax break under Mr. Obama’s plan, significantly more than under Mr. McCain.

Fannie and Freddie:
Senator John McCain said tonight that he “warned about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” echoing some of his recent comments in which he portrayed himself as sounding the alarm about the impending financial crisis.

Mr. McCain was referring to his decision in 2006 to sign on as a co-sponsor of a Senate bill that would have overhauled regulations governing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But the legislation was introduced more than 16 months earlier, and the debate over the issue had been going on for some time. He also only added his name to the measure after an oversight agency issued a long report condemning practices at Fannie Mae.

Nuclear Reactors and Jobs: In the debate, as in his campaign speeches, Mr. McCain said that the program to build 45 nuclear reactors that he favors would “provide 700,000 jobs for American workers.” But scientists, industry analysts and other experts, including advocates of nuclear power, offer much more modest figures, noting that a good deal of the heavy foundry work, for instance, would have to be done overseas.

Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace who is now co-chairman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a pro-nuclear group, estimated that each reactor project would generate between 3,000 and 4,000 jobs during the construction phase and up to 800 permanent jobs once in operation. Asked to provide a ballpark figure on employment if all 45 reactors were to be built, he responded “225,000 good union jobs that you can support a family on.”

Senator Obama also talked about reducing oil dependence with wind and solar power, but making that work would require a new battery technology that is not certain to develop.