Look for substance in debates

The first of three presidential debates has been completed, with the sole vice-presidential debate scheduled for Thursday evening. Evaluation of these quadrennial events tends to be based on the most superficial matters, such as whether a knockout blow or a major gaffe was made, the presidential "look" was evident, expectations were met, positive or negative impressions were given, and so on. Instead, what we should be looking for in a president is evidence of solid character and sound public policy. Some voters are still undecided, in part because neither of those decisive criteria matter to them as much as superficial appearances. However that may be, the country depends on wisdom and virtue, not charisma or demagoguery.

Of course, character and policy, wisdom and virtue, are only distinguishable in theory; in real persons one finds some combination of these. Still, a man of character is more likely to favor sound policy than a man of bad character. A virtuous man is more likely to be wise than a vicious man.

When it comes to character, Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, has a distinct advantage. For not only did he demonstrate his courage as a prisoner of war at the hands of the North Vietnamese communists, but he has never feared to buck political pressure from inside as well as outside of his political party. I will not maintain that he has always been right–only that he would rather be right than win an election.

A year ago McCain’s campaign for the Republican nomination seemed doomed. In fact, his own fate was inextricably tied to our country’s. During nearly four years of America’s attempts to crush extremists of various stripes following the stunning victory over the forces of the late Saddam Hussein, McCain was almost alone among members of Congress in calling for an increase in troops and a change in strategy. His judgment and his candidacy were vindicated when Gen Petraeus’ "surge" virtually chased the enemy from Iraq and gave peace and stability a chance.

That same courage was on display at last Friday’s presidential debate with Democratic candidate Barack Obama. He justifiably reminded everyone of his lonely crusade to save America’s policy in Iraq and criticized his opponent for his failure to admit that he was wrong in dismissing the surge, not to mention opposing the removal of Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime, with its history of deploying weapons of mass destruction.

McCain is not the skillful rhetorician that Obama is, for that latter’s nimble verbal footwork gave the impression that his quarrel with America’s decision to topple Hussein was merely because we had "taken our eye off the ball" in Afghanistan. But it is a known fact that Obama could not win the Democratic nomination without appeasing the far left that is animated by a combination of Bush hatred and hostility to American interests.

When Obama declares that the next president, preferably himself, will need to repair the damage done to America’s reputation abroad caused by the allegedly disastrous policies of George Bush, he is merely repeating a less obvious version of the "global test" that sank failed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry‘s chances four years ago. It was no accident that Sen. Obama went abroad a few months ago to "wow" Europeans and try to pressure the Iraqi government to delay any permanent agreements with the United States until Jan. 20, 2009.

Democrats are reputed to have an "edge" when the country is in economic crisis, as it is now. Obama only made an appearance with McCain at a meeting of the President and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson with congressional leaders to hammer out some sort of relief package for the nation’s credit. But McCain wisely rescued the House Republicans’ alternative private insurance plan from being ignored by Democrats, who preferred to stick taxpayers with the full cost of the proposed bailout and cover up their up-to-the-eyeballs involvement with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

We are in a credit crisis not because of inadequate federal regulation of private investment companies but because federal law encouraged easy credit and two quasi-governmental behemoths made a mockery out of the lending business by enticing people who could not afford even to make a down payment on a home, to sign papers for purchase anyway.

In future debates one hopes that voters will look past the atmospherics and listen carefully for evidence of what we need in a president, not for what merely pleases us.