The Debate We Wanted

And the answers America needed to hear.

For those of you who watched the first presidential debate, it was an almost surreal experience.  Americans have grown up with the stories of the great Lincoln-Douglas debate, the old movies of Nixon and Kennedy, and the newer recordings of Ronald Reagan and his various opponents.  We've come to expect a certain candor, quality, knowledge, and skill from the prospective Leader of the Free World.

This wasn't that sort of debate.

I got terribly frustrated watching the debate, as I do watching almost any political debate this campaign season.  The answers given, regardless of candidate, are always designed to be sound bites lacking in depth or understanding.

Often they don't actually answer the questions asked.  And more annoying still is that they often accept the premise of the question, even though the question itself is so loaded as to be all but a lie in its own right.

So here are my answers to the questions from the debate - what should have been said, by a wiser candidate than the two we have.  I'm not responding to what McCain said or Obama said, just the question at face value.

I've taken the questions from the CNN transcript, as they were asked by moderator Jim Lehrer.

LEHRER: Gentlemen, at this very moment tonight, where do you stand on the financial recovery plan?

FENNOMAN: What plan?  There is no plan.  Lots of stuff has been proposed.  Lots of Chicken Littles running around screaming that the sky is falling, but there is no plan proposed - at least, not publicly and transparently so the voters can decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

I also want to clarify some points that may not be clear to Americans.  This is not a market failure.  This is a government failure.

For the past 25 years, Congress has passed legislation requiring banks to provide financing to those who don't qualify.  This was done with the good intention of increasing home ownership.

But as they old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are government entities, not private sector entities.  They were not bound by the same fundamental laws of economics that binds and limits other companies.  Their failure is a great example of what happens with the government meddles where it ought not.

Albert Einstein famously said "Insanity is repeatedly doing things the same way and expecting different results."  What has been proposed is repeating the mistakes of the past, expecting different results this time.

From what I've heard, Senator Obama wishes to implement the same types of policies that moved us from the painful market crash of 1929 to the Great Depression.  That would be doing things the same way and expecting different results.  From what I've heard, Senator McCain is apparently supportive of some of the House Republican ideas - which are certainly steps in the right directions.

The correct way to act would be to first, make sure that the tax payers aren't put on the hook.

Market based solutions, including letting business and banks fail, are the best way to correct this problem.  It will be painful, but it was poor public policy and greed that caused this problem to begin with.

Those who bought homes that weren't able to afford them are going to feel the painful consequences of their decisions - and those who offered and approved such mortgages need to be held accountable for throwing common sense out the window.  This includes holding Congress accountable for poor legislation that enabled this type of behavior.

Second, we need to create the climate of business growth.  This would mean cutting if not eliminating (even for a relatively short period of time) the capital gains tax.

There has been a lot of discussion about the corporate income tax.  This needs to be cut down drastically and simplified.  Reduce it to 5%, or maybe 10%, and eliminate the loop holes and most of the deductions.

Corporate income taxes are really double taxation on the taxpayer.  Corporations don't pay taxes, you and I do through higher prices for our goods and services.

This climate of business growth needs to be encouraged with a complete overhaul of current financial regulations.  More regulation on top of what we already have is only going smother any good we might do.  We need to start over.  Use what has been learned over the last 80 years since the Depression and regulate only where necessary, otherwise keeping government out of the way.

LEHRER: All right, let's go to the next lead question, which is essentially following up on this same subject.  And using your word "fundamental," are there fundamental differences between your approaches to what you would do as president to lead this country out of the financial crisis?

FENNOMAN: First, cut government spending.  Ours is not a taxation problem, but a government spending problem.  There are inefficiencies, duplications, waste and fraud at every level of government, not to mention all of the programs that have no Constitutional basis.

First is to clean house, then as part of cutting spending, implement a mix of base-line and zero-based budgeting.  We can't toss out all that we've learned, but we have to end this idea that if an organization doesn't spend money, they'll lose it next year.  Each department of government needs to develop a budget and provide justification for its spending.  This I can do as president, as it's in my executive power.

Second, completely overhaul the tax code, particularly the income and payroll taxes.  They need to be simplified.  Taxes need to be reduced.

We need to stop pretending that payroll taxes go into the so-called Social Security lock box--we all know they go into the general revenue fund to be spent as Congress wishes.  There is nothing in the famous lock box except I.O.U.'s, and the sooner we're honest about that, the better.

One side point to make about taxes:  According to IRS figures, the top 1% of income tax payers pay more in taxes than the bottom 50% combined.  The top 10% of taxpayers pay almost 64% of all taxes.  Top 20% pay 78% of all taxes.  The top 50% pay almost 97% of all taxes.

If taxes are cut, you can only cut them for the people who actually pay them.  So when Senator Obama says that 95% of the tax payers will see a cut in taxes, just exactly what does he mean?  More than half of them aren't paying very much if anything at all.  Zero divided by anything is still zero.

I cannot, as president, overhaul the tax code.  I don't have the Constitutional authority to do so, but I can present a plan, rally the American people behind it, and make sure Congress knows that this is what needs to be done.  I'll need the help of Congress, but more importantly, the help of the public to make this happen.  This is also why our upcoming Congressional elections are so important.

Third, I would revisit all of our trade deals with the world.  We live in a global economy, a global world market.  I would work to ensure trade is fair - meaning as free as possible, in both directions.

Of course, we're going to deal with governments who don't have the best interests of their citizens, but we need to still trade with them.  We'll need to look at what avenues we have of encouraging free and fair trade without closing our markets and limiting our ability to trade around the world.

The dollar must become the currency of choice again in the world.  Again, as president, I have Constitutional authority to do this, but will need the help of the Senate to pass any treaties.  The Senate has shamefully refused to pass our free trade agreement with our friends in Colombia, who are recovering from a devastating civil war and need our economic support; this will be a top priority in my administration, and we'll go on from there.

Fourth, I would encourage policy to rebuild American manufacturing.  A sustainable life requires us to not spend so much energy just transporting goods and services from overseas.  We can produce them here.

Through the use of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship we can create new products and services that use less energy, create less waste in their manufacture and lead the world in new technologies for a better tomorrow.  Again, I'll need the help of Congress, but there is still much I can do as president to encourage and promote these ideas.

Fifth, I would also encourage policy to increase American energy independence.  Our, and the world's economy, is based on cheap and available energy.  Today, that energy is primarily derived from oil.

We need to exploit our own resources in an environmentally friendly way, but we need to exploit them.  I would change whatever policies and executive orders limit our ability to build new refineries and search for new resources.  I would support changes in law to allow for nuclear power plants to be built once again.  If there are departments in the executive branch that resist, I will use my executive authority to change who's in charge.

Again, Congress will need to also act, as they have Constitutional authority I do not have.  Together, we can plan and prepare for the future.  This item goes hand-in-hand with my fourth point of increasing American manufacturing.

Sixth, we have to deal with our entitlement spending.  Social Security must be made sustainably solvent, as do the Medicaid and Medicare programs.  This is tied to my first point of reducing government spending.

We must eliminate duplication of programs.  We must change the attitude that a successful government program is one that has more people using it this year than used it last year, to an attitude that says a successful program is one that goes away because nobody needs it anymore.

Privatization or opting out of Social Security must be on the table, while keeping it available for those who wish to use it, and always ensuring that our promises are kept to those depending on them.

There are other things that can be done, too.  I will do what I can as the executive, but Congress must also act and I will present proposals for them to act upon to resolve these problems.  And a final thing on this point is to include foreign aid in the "entitlement" spending category.  Other countries, including the UN, aren't necessarily entitled to the American taxpayer's money.

Seventh, related to the health care system, I would encourage policies that put the power back in the hands of the people.

We need to revamp the insurance regulatory system.  We have 50 systems that could and should be one.  Insurance companies need to be able to cross state lines.

Let's not forget that our current system is the accidental result of government interference in the economy by wage freezes during WWII.  Tax-free health insurance benefits were a way to get around a bad government policy.  This well-intended road, combined with our Medicaid/Medicare spending, has led us to health care spending hell.  When government policy messes with the market we always get a mess.

I would advocate health savings accounts.  I would encourage changes in our system that encourage individuals to be aware of the costs of their care and be able to act accordingly.

Eighth, we must secure our borders.  We cannot allow immigrants to illegally enter the country.  We need to work towards sending the illegals home.

Then we need to revise our immigration policies to ones that make sense.  This country was made great by immigrants.  We still need them.  But they, just as we, must follow the law.

With my executive authority, I will enforce existing immigration law.  I will work with Congress to reform our current immigration laws to protect our borders, protect our taxpayers and ensure fair access to this country to those who wish to become Americans.

LEHRER: All right, speaking of things that both of you want, another lead question, and it has to do with the rescue - the financial rescue thing that we are asking about.

As president, as a result of whatever financial rescue plan comes about and the $700 billion, whatever it is it's going to cost, what are you going to have to give up, in terms of the priorities that you would bring as president of the United States, as a result of having to pay for the financial rescue plan?

FENNOMAN: I reject the premise of the question.  None of the things that I've outlined above are going to "cost" anything, except maybe a whole host of government jobs as we clean house.  My policies are encouraged to maximize revenue while minimizing cost to the taxpayers.

Whenever tax cuts are talked about, the language used, and it's false language, is related to the "cost" of the tax cut.  We have to change this attitude.  A tax cut is not a "cost" - we've learned that our current tax levels are so high and hindering to economic activity, that when you cut taxes you actually wind up getting more money in tax revenues.  Even Senator Obama admitted as much in his primary debates.

I repeat what I said earlier about the bailout plans: we need the market to resolve itself and get the government out of the mess - that is, the government should not and cannot encourage through tax policy, legislation and quasi-government programs behavior that leads to a lack of accountability and throwing out of common sense.

LEHRER: All right. Let's go another subject.  Much has been said about the lessons of Vietnam.  What do you see as the lessons of Iraq?

FENNOMAN: Lesson 1 is that we can all be fooled.  Democrats were calling for the ousting of Saddam Hussein in the late 90's because they all thought he had WMDs.  All the world's intelligence agencies felt the same way.  The whole world was fooled.  And we're not really sure what happened with some of the weapons of mass destruction.

If it happened once, it can happen again.  However we need to pull the politics out of the State Department and the CIA and make those bureaucracies responsible to the President.  We need to make sure that bureaucrats cannot trump the president.

Lesson 2 is that the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force needs to be used until the job is finished - and it's not done, yet.  This applies to Afghanistan, too.

Lesson 3 is that the world is a better place without murderous dictator thugs.

Lesson 4 is that the UN is useless in these types of circumstances.  Resolution after resolution was passed in the UN to no effect, partially because it is a corrupt organization, partially because the UN has no teeth.

Lesson 5 is that we need to let the military run the military and not undermine their efforts at home.  Democrats in Congress have wished for the whole effort to fail.  The mainstream media has cheered failures, but the American people have supported our troops all along the way, praying for success.

Victory is not indefinite American occupation. Victory in Iraq is a free and friendly, independent nation.  One that is able to defend itself from enemies within and without.  One that shows what can happen with the principles of human freedom are enshrined in its own constitution.

LEHRER: Afghanistan, a new lead question. Now, having resolved Iraq, we'll move to Afghanistan, and it picks up on a point that's already been made. Do you think more U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan, how many, and when?

FENNOMAN: One of the lessons learned from Vietnam and Iraq is that we cannot micromanage a war.  The President should make known the end game - victory - and then provide the resources for the military to achieve that victory.  I would defer to General Petraeus for any specific plans with regards to Afghanistan.

However, we do have the issue of Pakistan to deal with, as Pakistan and Afghanistan are intricately tied.  Pakistan has the problem of some of the population being sympathetic if not completely supportive of the Taliban.  Too much US support and the Pakistani government may have a civil war on its hands.  Pakistan has nuclear weapons.  We need to be able to convince the majority of the Pakistanis that it's in their best interest to let us root out the Taliban.

LEHRER:  New lead question.  What is your reading on the threat to Iran right now to the security of the United States?

FENNOMAN: We have a madman with a government that backs him up oppressing his own people.  The Iranian people are no threat - in fact, I would consider them our friends.  Their government, however, is going to be a source of instability in the region until it's changed.  Ahmadinejad's statements are calculated to cause instability, and he is a real threat to Israel.

The proper way to deal with them?  That's a tough question.  Economic sanctions never harm the government, only the people, as we've seen in Cuba.

What other things can we do?  Russia and China, while they have an interest in keeping Iran from becoming nuclear, also have strong trading interests.  As we saw with the UN sanctions of Iraq, many countries violated those sanctions and traded under the table.

The best answer is to provide extreme pressure from China, Russia and the rest of Europe on Iran and back it up with sanctions that might include not buying their oil.  There aren't good answers for dealing with Iran, only problematic ones no matter how you look at it.

LEHRER: New lead question.  How do you see the relationship with Russia? Do you see them as a competitor? Do you see them as an enemy? Do you see them as a potential partner?

FENNOMAN: With Putin in power, no matter who the current president is, we have a situation developing that is similar to Iran.  We used to have a better relationship, but Georgia showed Russia's true colors.

It would be great if they were a true competitor, in the sense that they're trying to bring the best products and services to the world market.  Unfortunately, they've resorted to they're old way which is if you can't beat them economically, beat them physically, which is what they've done in Georgia.

I don't see them as an enemy, but they need to be watched carefully.  As to any potential future partnerships, we'll have to wait and see what they choose to do.

Russia is an interesting place.  The Russian people, while they have a proud history, have a very short-lived experiment with democracy.  Barely a dozen years.  They're going to go through some tough internal struggles as they learn how to govern themselves.

The real question is how does the United States aid in this transition?  We need to support those who believe in freedom and the rule of law, politically, diplomatically, and in other ways, but Russia must have its own reformers who are willing to fight for liberty in their own country.  But as this internal struggle goes on, we must make it crystal clear to Russia that, as a sovereign nation, they are expected to respect the independence of other sovereign nations and the rules of international engagement.

LEHRER: This is the last lead question.  And the question is this: What do you think the likelihood is that there would be another 9/11-type attack on the continental United States?

FENNOMAN: We really have no way of knowing.  It's very difficult to stop determined crazy people from doing terrible things.  We see this on a smaller scale all the time.

However, I do think we're safer from the standpoint that the country is aware of the possibilities of another attack.  Local law enforcement is probably a little sharper and more aware of situations.

But it's not possible to be 100% safe.  I also think the Patriot Act has done what it needed to do.  We should go back and pull it apart and put it back together protecting our civil liberties and providing the resources and legal avenues to protect the country.  Securing our borders is a good first step.

I'd like to add a closing thought, if I may:  Jim, you said at one point during the exchange, asking about "the way you rule the country as president of the United States."  I find that phrase terrifying.

The President of the United States of America does not rule the country.  He is not a king, nor a dictator.  He is a President, serving at the will of the people.

I would not rule the country.  I would exercise my Constitutional authority and no more.

I cannot make law - and I will not claim to be able to do so.  I cannot raise or lower taxes, nor will I claim to be able to do so.  Both of those powers are given to Congress.

The Constitution narrowly defines what I can do as the President and I will do those things, and those things only, to the best of my ability.  Be afraid of any candidate who promises more than he can legally deliver.

While you may not believe me, each answer was written "off-the-cuff", without any research or looking things up.  I didn't have any note cards, only the luxury of some extra time to correct spelling and grammar.  I could have won the debate.  In fact, if they'll invite me, I'll go to the next one and see who comes out the winner, and I'm not even running for president.

My fourteen-year-old daughter was embarrassed by McCain's performance and terrified by Obama's answers.  This isn't the first debate I had to turn off before it finished... and I'm sure it won't be the last.  For once, I'd like to see the candidates actually answer the question posed (or reject it out of hand) instead of launching into their prepared sound bites.

The art of debate is lost.  Opportunities to make points based on principle have slipped way in favor of the attempt at a zinger.  The whole sorry spectacle reflects very poorly on the quality of our political discourse.  It also shows that for the last several elections the primary process does not provided the best candidates.  Mediocrity wins the day.

And the last thing we need just now is a mediocre President.  Where is today's Washington, Lincoln, or Reagan?  Sad to say, he surely wasn't in Oxford, Mississippi last Friday.

Fennoman is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Fennoman or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments
While I like you answers you have to admit that it's much easier to answer such questions blogging in front of a computer connected to the largest information repository in the known universe with the luxury of hindsight.
September 29, 2008 9:42 AM
"With Putin in power, no matter who the current president is, we have a situation developing that is similar to Iran."

No. Putin is a smart man - he may be power hungry and want a more powerful Russian state, but he is rational, unlike the leadership of the Islamic Republic.

Georgia merely showed what happens when a small state does something stupid and starts attacking the peacekeeping forces of an incredibly large, powerful neighbor. Russia showed remarkable restraint in not going all the way to Tbilisi and removing the aggressive Saakashvili regime from power.
September 29, 2008 9:46 AM
Wow, great responses! Yes, I would LOVED to see this kind of debate instead of the one that happened.

That being said, who do you think won? I think any rationale person would HAVE to say that McCain cleaned Obama's clock. His answers were significantly more authentic and USEFUL than Obama's ideological ramblings.
September 29, 2008 9:52 AM
"Putin is a smart man - he may be power hungry and want a more powerful Russian state, but he is rational, unlike the leadership of the Islamic Republic"

Agreed. That was one of the primary reasons Reagan's tactics during the Cold War could work.

I think the nutjob running Iran would have no problem destroying himself and everyone around him if it meant putting a hole in Israel, the US or both.

(Great debate answers)
September 29, 2008 9:55 AM
That "ruler" remark from Lehrer also jumped out to me. Glad someone else was troubled by it. While it may have been a slip of the tongue (which I doubt since they rehearse this stuff over and over) the word has an entirely different connotation than "preside" or "lead".
September 29, 2008 9:58 AM
Great points and answers.

McCain should have gone at Obama more directly and been more aggresive about Obama's kneejerk socialist tendencies.

Why not respond to any one of Obama's comments with:

"Sorry, Senator, but that's socialism and America doesn't do that."

Sure, the NYT would have decried it as deceptive. They would have screamed that McCain used foul, loaded words.

Do we care? Economic conservatives would have eaten it up with a spoon!

McCain DID definitely win the night by being more direct and practical than Obama was (experience usually does that) but he could have driven a HGUE wedge between himself and Obama, the result of which would have been: traditional American vs. radical progressive.

September 29, 2008 11:52 AM
How did you like the format, specifically where they encouraged - even demanded - that the candidates talk to each other? That wasn't allowed the last few times.
September 29, 2008 12:02 PM
The format was fantastic, and has tremendous potential for the future. I only wish we had worthy contestants. Can you imagine Reagan vs. Carter in that format? Whooo-eee!

Unfortunately, the VP debate this week won't use the same format, McCain is not confident that Palin could handle it. Of course, since everyone in media believes she can't handle it, there would have been no loss, and she might have been able to pull out a tremendous victory as she did at the convention. No time for playing it safe, McC! Oh well.
September 29, 2008 12:24 PM
"FENNOMAN: What plan? There is no plan. Lots of stuff has been proposed"

Yes, and the administration and news media JUST learned that they can't ram through any terrible thing they want. They tried and failed.

I guess well-connected fat cats can't ALWAYS buy the legislation they want.
September 29, 2008 4:56 PM
"Why not respond to any one of Obama's comments with:

"Sorry, Senator, but that's socialism and America doesn't do that.""

McCain doesn't believe that. Just from his speech today, it's clear that he prefers socialist policies to true capitalist policies.

The only difference between Obama and McCain is a matter of degree.

September 29, 2008 5:02 PM
Very well done. Wolfgang
September 29, 2008 5:10 PM

Most of these responses were composed on-the-stop. Copy the transcript question and write the answer. Yes, it's easier to type them than to speak them, but I promise that I could do a better job than either Obama or McCain.

The problem is that neither of them speak from principle. McCain is a little better, particularly on foreign policy, but he still doesn't have a sound foundation and understanding of our constitutional government. Any candidate who does will be able to give reasoned answers that actually make sense.

I would love to actually be in the debate: Obama - Fennoman - McCain and see who comes out on top. I'll bet my answers, during the pressure and stress of the moment, will be better than either of theirs.
September 30, 2008 9:36 AM
I wish...just one of them would had introduced a "surprize" mystery canidate We'll call him a (Demopublican)representing the majority of unbiased opinions with a sense of justice for all regardless of everything these two stand for, that was lurking back stage, that would have roared out after neither answered directly and looked both canidates squarely in their eyes before it pointed at Sen. OBAMA first and said something like this:" Stop making the American people feel like Democratic victims and get over yourself as OBAMA the almighty!" Turning straight at Sen. McCain with: "You stop semi/assuming American people can take care of themselves by begging for a Republican approval and try to appear as angry at all the corruption as we know you can get!" Then look at Jim Lehrer and say: Now, can you please stir things up abit more by directly speaking American's Mind and the entire Country's consideration on what matters most,and stop trying to get them to laugh,shake hands and dance around our issues, for God's sake! Let them Fight!
September 30, 2008 10:37 AM
@ Fennoman

"The problem is that neither of them speak from principle"

There really is no better way of putting it then that.
September 30, 2008 10:55 AM
Just imagine for the sake of applauding great speech writers What sums it up when politics hopes for impaired hearing: If they answered by their guts hanging out ready to be in a vice grip, when Jim Lehrer had asked the lead question of Where "they" stood on the Recovery /Bail Out plan the answers we might have gotten would have possibly sounded something like this anyway:
Sen. OBAMA: We need a plan to ensure the American people that I'm looking out for all of us but me and my interests has made me prove time after time to the middle class that I must become important to the many Americans that have suffered a great loss of freedom and lost solutions for a plan of survival, the struggle has defeated us its time for a new direction for change, you can't get change in electing John.
Sen. McCain: Sen. OBAMA just doesn't get it, I know what suffering is, and I know what sacrifice is, I know what torture is too, and Sen. OBama, I stayed in that prison cell for the powerful long term affects that it would show to this country that I put my country first and to give hope to those that I could have turned my back on and took the easy way out. Sen.OBAMA, I know what a struggle is, and it doesn't end in defeat,I can lead the American people out of this cell of excessive spending,but not by adding more problems.
September 30, 2008 11:44 AM
If any candidate responded like this, they'd have my vote immediately. Great responses; this sort of debate is all but dead in anti-intellectual America. Nice work.
September 30, 2008 2:21 PM
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