Check Point: The Vice-Presidential DebateBy The New York Times
The Times's Peter Baker, Kitty Bennett, Julie Bosman, John Broder, Michael Luo, Larry Rohter and William Yardley are examining the policies and statements of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Gov. Sarah Palin in real time tonight. For more on the candidates and the issues, see The Times's Election Guide.
For more on the debate see our Live Blog.
An Afghan Surge?
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Gov. Sarah Palin sharply disagreed on whether a rapid reinforcement of troops and the application of counterinsurgency strategy as developed in Iraq would work in neighboring Afghanistan.
Mr. Biden said that the American commanding general in Afghanistan had said today (he actually spoke on Wednesday) that a "surge" in troops would not work there because of major differences in military and civic challenges between Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mrs. Palin said that the general had called for more troops – in essence, a "surge" - and said the counterinsurgency strategy that had reduced the violence in Iraq could also work in Afghanistan.
In citing the general's remarks, Mr. Biden did not name him. Mrs. Palin referred to him as "McClellan." The commander is Army Gen. David D. McKiernan.
Both Mr. Biden and Mrs. Palin were partly right. General McKiernan declined to use the term "surge," but also called for a quick infusion of troops to pursue counterinsurgency operations similar to those in Iraq but on a different scale and over a very different politico-military landscape.
General McKiernan said in a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday that he needed more troops quickly to accomplish his mission of defeating insurgents, drug lords and the Taliban.
"The word I don't use for Afghanistan is 'surge,' " General McKiernan told reporters in Washington, where he was attending high-level meetings to review United States policy in Afghanistan. "There needs to be a sustained commitment of a variety of military and non-military resources, I believe. That's my advice to winning in Afghanistan. It won't be a short-term solution."
Mr. Biden and his Democratic running mate, Senator Barack Obama have called Afghanistan "the central front in the war on terror" and are calling for deployment of additional American combat brigades there. They do not call such an increase a "surge," however, as that term has been applied in Iraq.
Ms. Palin said that the general "did not say definitively that the surge principles would not work in Afghanistan. Certainly, accounting for different conditions in that different country — and conditions are certainly different." She went on to list some. We have NATO allies helping us, for one, and even the geographic differences are huge. But the counterinsurgency principles also could work in Afghanistan. McClellan didn't say anything opposite of that."
The general did say that some aspects of the Iraq counterinsurgency strategy, such as the effort to engage tribal leaders in political dialogue, could yield fruit in Afghanistan, which has long been dominated by regional and tribal warlords. He said there are significant differences between the two countries and the two conflicts, however.
"But there are countless other differences between Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. He then went on to list many of them. "In Afghanistan, it's such a poor country, by any set of metrics you can imagine. A country that has very harsh geography. It's very difficult to move around, getting back to our reliance on helicopters. It's a country with very few natural resources, as opposed to the oil revenues that [Iraq] has. There's very little money to be generated in terms of generated in Afghanistan. The literacy rate you have a literate society in Iraq, you have a society that has a history of producing civil administrators, technocrats, middle class that are able to run the country in Iraq. You do not have that in Afghanistan."
Cost of War?
Mr. Biden said that "we spend more money in three weeks on combat in Iraq than we spent on the entirety of the last seven years that we have been in Afghanistan building that country." This appears to be exaggerated, although it is not exactly clear what Mr. Biden was including under "building that country."
The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation a non-partisan group, estimates U.S. spending in Iraq at $2.4 billion a week, based on a report this year by the Congressional Research Service. That would put a three-week total at $7.2 billion.
In June the U.S. State Department said security and reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan from fiscal year 2001 to fiscal year 2008 amounted to $26 billion, including $7.7 billion for economic and social development, $17.2 billion for security and $1.3 billion on "governance, rule of law and human rights."
Ms. Palin said she and state lawmakers "called for divestment" from international companies that do business in Darfur. She said that a bill that would have ended the state's investments in Darfur "hasn't passed yet but it needs to because all of us, as individuals, and as humanitarians and as elected officials should do all we can to end those atrocities in that region of the world."
Les Gara, a Democratic member of the House who was one of the sponsors of the divestment measure in the House, said Ms. Palin opposed the bill before she supported it, and that she was never a vocal supporter. He said the Palin administration opposed the House bill early in the legislative session this year. Several weeks later, after Mr. Gara and others consulted with administration officials, the administration supported a similar Senate bill late in the session that did not make it out of committee. He said he was not aware of major changes between the House and Senate bills.
"I do appreciate that they listened and ultimately changed their position, but it was too late for the bill to pass," Mr. Gara said. "It's perfectly black and white that they killed the bill in the House."
McCain and Spain:
One of the more arcane exchanges of the evening came over the issue of negotiations with adversaries and friends. Attempting to portray Mr. McCain as absurdly intransigent in the diplomatic arena, Mr. Biden accused him of shunning even some of America's friends.
"John McCain said as recently as a couple of weeks ago, he wouldn't even sit down with the government of Spain, a NATO ally that has troops in Afghanistan with us now," Mr. Biden said. "I find that incredible."
Mr. Biden's accusation stems from an interview Mr. McCain gave last month to a radio station in Miami. After asking him about various Latin American leaders, the interviewer asked him if he was willing to meet with Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Luis Zapatero.
Mr. McCain's answer, given in four different variations in response to insistent questioning, was ambiguous, which triggered much speculation in Spain and among other NATO allies in Europe. "I am willing to meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are for human rights, democracy and freedom, and I will stand up to those that do not," he said at the close of the exchange.
As Mr. Biden indicated, Spain does indeed have troops in Afghanistan, and like the United States has also been a victim of Islamic terrorism. But Mr. McCain did not explicitly say he would not meet with Mr. Zapatero or other Spanish officials.
A day later, however, Mr. McCain's chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, seemed to eliminate much of the initial ambiguity. "Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview," he said in remarks to The Washington Post.
That still leaves open the possibility of a meeting with other Spanish officials (or Mr. Zapatero himself) in a setting other than the White House. But diplomatic analysts nonetheless regard Mr. McCain's position as unusually cool towards an ally, perhaps because Mr. Zapatero withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq after he took office.
Governor Palin criticized Mr. Biden for an overheard comment he made on a rope line that appeared to contradict Mr. Obama's support of building clean coal plants.
"I was surprised to hear you mention that because you had said that there isn't anything, such a thing as clean coal, and I think you said it in a rope line too, at one of the rallies," she said.
His comment on the rope line was in response to a young voter, who asked him why he and Mr. Obama support "clean coal."
"We're not supporting clean coal," Mr. Biden said in response. He added, "China's going to burn 300 years of bad coal unless we figure out how to clean their coal up, because it's going to ruin your lungs, and there's nothing we can do about it. No coal plants here in America. Build 'em, if they're gonna build 'em, over there and make 'em clean because they're killing you."
After the McCain campaign jumped on his remarks last week, the Obama campaign responded by reiterating Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden's support of clean coal technology, but they were not able to fully explain the contradiction between that position and Mr. Biden's remarks to the voter on the rope line.
At the debate, Mr. Biden defended himself by asking Ms. Ifill to examine his record on clean coal. "My record, for 25 years, has supported clean-coal technology. A comment made at a rope line was taken out of context," he said. "I was talking about exporting that technology to China so when they burn their dirty coal it won't be as dirty, it will be clean."
Small Businesses and Taxes:
Ms. Palin said "millions of small businesses" would pay higher taxes under Mr. Obama's tax plan, pointing to the increases for "those making $250,000 a year or more." Mr. Obama's plan would affect couples making more than $250,000 or singles making more than $200,000.
Many small-business owners actually pay taxes as individuals, not as corporations. But Factcheck.org cited a projection by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center that 663,608 taxpayers with business income would fall into the top two tax brackets in 2009 and, therefore, be affected by the Obama tax plan. Not all of these, however, would be properly considered "small business owners." Some are simply those who get income in from real-estate partnerships or other investment arrangements. In other words, the actual number of small businessmen who would be affected by Obama tax plan is likely even smaller than that number, not "millions."
Mr. Biden described Mr. Obama's plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq as "ironically, the same plan that Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, an George Bush are now negotiating. The only odd man out here, only one left out, is John McCain."
Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama are closer today in their vision ahead for Iraq than they used to be, but there are still important differences. Mr. Obama has promised to withdraw combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, which would mean mid-2010. Mr. Bush, after years of resisting timetables, has signaled willingness to set a goal for withdrawing by the end of 2011.
Mr. Bush and Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, are negotiating a strategic framework for U.S.-Iraqi relations and a status of forces agreement that would govern the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of this year. Mr. Bush still maintains that any withdrawals would be "aspirational" and contingent on conditions on the ground.
Criticizing the Democratic candidates for their opposition to "the surge" in Iraq that has been one of the bedrocks of Mr. McCain's national security policy, Ms. Palin asserted that "we're down to pre-surge numbers" of troops in Iraq. That statement is incorrect.
In reality, there are about 146,000 troops still serving in Iraq. That is roughly 11,000 more than the number deployed there before the start early last year of the troop build-up that came to be known as "the surge"
It is true that President Bush last month announced he intends to withdraw some 8,000 combat and support troops over the next few months. But even that withdrawal, if it were to occur at the pace and in the amount the president wants, would still leave at least 138,000 troops in Iraq, slightly above the figure before the surge began.
There are many substantial differences between the two tickets on Iraq policy. Mr. McCain has been the main advocate of "the surge" in Iraq and Mr. Obama opposed it. But it is definitely a stretch to say that Mr. Obama "voted for cutting off funding for the troops" there.
In 2007, Mr. Obama did vote against one funding bill submitted to Congress by the White House. But he did so because the legislation did not include any mention of a schedule to withdraw American troops, something that Mr. Obama was pushing for.
"We must fund our troops," Mr. Obama said at the time. "But we owe them something more. We owe them a clear, prudent plan to relieve them of the burden of policing someone else's civil war."
On nearly a dozen other occasions since entering the Senate in 2005, however, Mr. Obama has voted for bills to fund the war in Iraq. He has done so in spite of his opposition to the war, which he made public even before the United States invaded to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In April 2007, in fact, Mr. Obama voted for one such bill, which Mr. Bush vetoed because Democrats had added a non-binding call to withdraw troops from Iraq. By that same standard, Mr. Bush also could be said to have voted not to fund the troops.
The 2005 energy bill was an issue in the first presidential debate, and Ms. Palin brought it up again, suggesting that Mr. Obama's vote for the bill allowed millions of dollars in tax benefits for oil companies.
"Senator Biden, you would remember that in that energy plan that Obama voted for, that's what gave those oil companies those big tax breaks. Your running mate voted for that."
Mr. Obama did vote for the bill, and at the time said that he favored the tax credits it included for ethanol and clean-coal facilities. But according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the bill eventually raised taxes on the oil industry by about $300 million.
Palin and Taxes:
Governor Palin said she reduced taxes when she was mayor of Wasilla, from 1996 to 2002. The city did eliminate property taxes, but she also pushed through a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for a $15 million sports complex. That increase followed a 2-cent sales tax initiated by her predecessor that helped the city expand its police force and pay for other new services. Ms. Palin also said she eliminated a business inventory tax. She did, and that move is credited with bringing many large chain stores to Wasilla.
Ms. Palin's tax policies have had a mixed impact on the city and received mixed reviews. The sales tax revenues brought in from the chain stores came at a time when the area around Wasilla was one of the fastest growing regions in Alaska. The region includes about 80,000 people, but with stores centralized in Wasilla, the sales taxes those residents spent went into Wasilla's coffers, enabling the city to ease property taxes on its 7,000 residents.
Many residents view the new retail options as an indicator of Wasilla having achieved a certain sophistication. They say the city is better off with the tax revenue and they note that they no longer have to drive 45 miles to shop in Anchorage. Others complain that Wasilla has become congested with traffic from people coming in to shop at stores like Sears, Sportsman's Warehouse and several strip malls that have been built in the last decades or so. Traffic congestion is a major issue in the current race for mayor, as are questions of how to bring in higher paying jobs, rather than the service jobs that have come with the new retail businesses.
Alternative Energy Votes:
Mr. Biden attacked Mr. McCain repeatedly for voting "20 times" against alternative energy, repeating a claim that Mr. Obama leveled against Mr. McCain in his debate last week.
Factcheck.org, a non-partisan group, examined this charge, going over a list of 23 votes provided by the Obama campaign, but found that the claim was misleading because many of the votes involved Mr. McCain voting against mandatory use of alternative energy, or permitting exemptions from such mandates. The group found fewer than half of the votes cited by the Obama campaign actually involved reducing or eliminating incentives for utilizing renewable energy sources.
Taxes and Patriotism:
Borrowing a line that Mr. McCain has deployed on the campaign trail recently, Ms. Palin asserted that Mr. Biden has said that raising taxes is patriotic.
But that statement is a distortion of Mr. Biden's words. In the interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Sept. 18, to which Ms. Palin was referring, Mr. Biden said that paying taxes is patriotic, not raising them.
Kate Snow, the ABC News correspondent, had begun to ask Mr. Biden about rolling back the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, and who would effectively pay more taxes once the tax cuts expire.
"Anyone making over $250,000 .." Ms. Snow said, before Mr. Biden jumped in.
"Is going to pay more," he said. "It's time to be patriotic, time to jump in, time to be part of the deal, time to help get America out of the rut."
Tax Increases In addressing the issues of taxes, Governor Palin has made claims about Senator Obama's policies that are not correct. She revived, for example, an accusation that he and Mr. Biden voted "for the largest tax increases in U.S. history" and also charged that he would raise taxes "for those families making only $42,000 a year."
Mr. Obama voted twice this year in favor of a budget resolution that would have allowed the tax cuts that President Bush pushed through Congress in 2001 and 2003 to expire at the end of 2010, as the original law mandated. But that, by the definition of the Congressional Budget Office and other tax experts, does not constitute a tax increase.
The resolution, if not accompanied by other tax changes, envisages an increase in taxes for an individual earning $42,000 a year who has no dependents and owns no real estate. But it would not apply to a family. Indeed, estimates are that a family of four making as much as $90,000 would not see a tax increase.
In addition, the McCain campaign months ago abandoned its argument that Mr. Obama favored a historic tax increase. It did so after tax analysts and other economists debunked the claim, saying that nothing contemplated by either party comes anywhere near the tax increases put into effect to fight World War II. Ms. Palin, however, revived the charge.
How Much in Tax Cuts?
Senator Biden said that Mr. McCain was proposing $300 billion a year in tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals. Mr. Obama said the same thing in the presidential debate last Friday.
The figure is based on calculations from the Obama campaign and from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. They looked at McCain tax proposals beyond the extension of the tax cuts passed early in the Bush administration, which cost roughly $110 billion a year.
The policy center said that it could not put a precise dollar figure on the McCain proposals because his tax plan is not fully detailed and it was impossible to calculate how much of the tax relief would go to middle-class and low-income taxpayers.
The Obama campaign has used the $300 billion figure for months, but it is based on suppositions and projections, not fact.
'Universal' Heath Care:
Ms. Palin castigated Mr. Obama's health care plan as one that would mandate a "universal government-run" system in which health care is "taken over" by the federal government.
This is inaccurate on several levels. Mr. Obama's proposal, which he hopes will result in "universal" coverage in which everyone has health insurance, includes an option for people to choose a new public plan with benefits similar to what members of Congress and other federal employees currently have. It also includes an expansion of Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, but it is not at all exclusively government-run. It preserves the existing employer-based health insurance system, offering subsidies or tax credits to help those who cannot afford premiums. Mr. Obama's plan also only mandates that children, not adults, have coverage.
Gov. Sarah Palin boasted that Mr. McCain "sounded that warning bell" about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, echoing some of Mr. McCain's recent comments in which he portrayed himself as being on the vanguard in warning about the impending financial crisis.
Ms. Palin was referring to Mr. McCain's 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 after an oversight agency issued a lengthy report condemning practices at Fannie Mae.
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