The Second Presidential Debate: Highlights

The Second Presidential Debate: Highlights


The Second Presidential Debate between Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain, was held October 7, 2008 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. Tom Brokaw moderated the town hall style debate.

Senators Barack Obama and John McCain take the stage at Tuesday’s debate in Nashville. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

Senators Barack Obama and John McCain took the stage at Tuesday's debate in Nashville

The Stats

  • CNN debate poll: Obama beats McCain – 54 percent saying Democrat Barack Obama won and 30 percent thinking Republican John McCain was the victor.
  • A CBS poll of uncommitted voters: 40 percent identified Obama as the winner; 26 percent said McCain won, while 35 percent said it was a tie.
  • CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll, 10-7-08 55 percent say that Obama “cares more about people like you” than McCain
  • Ipsos/McClatchy poll, 10-7-08: Obama, the Democratic nominee, had the support of 47% of registered voters; McCain, the Republican candidate, had the support of 40%; Independent candidate Ralph Nader had 3%; Libertarian candidate Bob Barr had 1%.

In the News…

During Tuesday night’s debate, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain engaged in a town-hall setting. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

During Tuesday night's debate, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain engaged in a town-hall setting. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Candidate Soundbites

  • Full Transcript Download
  • McCAIN: It’s good to be with you at a town hall meeting.
  • On the Economy

  • OBAMA: I believe this is the final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President (George) Bush and supported by Sen. McCain….(Those policies) essentially said that we should strip away regulations and consumer protections and let the market run wild, and prosperity would rain down on all of us. It hasn’t worked out that way….You’re not interested in politicians pointing fingers. You’re interested in the impact on you.
  • McCAIN: I have a plan to fix this problem, and it’s got to do with energy independence. We’ve got to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much. And we’ve got to keep taxes low and stop the spending spree in Washington.
  • On Morgages

  • McCAIN: I would order the secretary of the Treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes — at the diminished value of those homes and let people be able to make those — be able to make those payments and stay in their homes. Is it expensive? Yes. But we all know, my friends, until we stabilize home values in America, we’re never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy. And we’ve got to give some trust and confidence back to America. I know how the do that, my friends. And it’s my proposal, it’s not Sen. Obama’s proposal, it’s not President Bush’s proposal. But I know how to get America working again, restore our economy and take care of working Americans.
  • OBAMA: This is not the end of the process; this is the beginning of the process. And that’s why it’s going to be so important for us to work with homeowners to make sure that they can stay in their homes. The secretary already has the power to do that in the rescue package, but it hasn’t been exercised yet. And the next president has to make sure that the next Treasury secretary is thinking about how to strengthen you as a home buyer, you as a homeowner, and not simply think about bailing out banks on Wall Street.
  • McCAIN: But you know, one of the real catalysts, really the match that lit this fire was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I’ll bet you, you may never even have heard of them before this crisis. But you know, they’re the ones that, with the encouragement of Sen. Obama and his cronies and his friends in Washington, that went out and made all these risky loans, gave them to people that could never afford to pay back. And you know, there were some of us that stood up two years ago and said we’ve got to enact legislation to fix this. We’ve got to stop this greed and excess.
  • OBAMA: Now, I’ve got to correct a little bit of Sen. McCain’s history, not surprisingly. Let’s, first of all, understand that the biggest problem in this whole process was the deregulation of the financial system. Sen. McCain, as recently as March, bragged about the fact that he is a deregulator. On the other hand, two years ago, I said that we’ve got a sub-prime lending crisis that has to be dealt with.
  • On the National Debt

  • OBAMA: And so while it’s true that nobody’s completely innocent here, we have had, over the last eight years, the biggest increases in deficit spending and national debt in our history. And Senator McCain voted for four out of five of those George Bush budgets.
  • McCAIN: I can see why you feel that cynicism and mistrust, because the system in Washington is broken. And I have been a consistent reformer.
  • On Energy

  • OBAMA: What Sen. McCain doesn’t mention is he’s been there 26 of them. And during that time, he voted 23 times against alternative fuels, 23 times. So it’s easy to talk about this stuff during a campaign, but it’s important for us to understand that it requires a sustained effort from the next president.
  • McCAIN: It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate, loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me.
  • On Taxes

  • OBAMA: It means — and I have to, again, repeat this. It means looking (ph) at the spending side, but also at the revenue side. I mean, Sen. McCain has been talking tough about earmarks, and that’s good, but earmarks account for about $18 billion of our budget. Now, when Sen. McCain is proposing tax cuts that would give the average Fortune 500 CEO an additional $700,000 in tax cuts, that’s not sharing a burden. And so part of the problem, I think, for a lot of people who are listening here tonight is they don’t feel as if they are sharing the burden with other folks…. That’s using a hatchet to cut the federal budget while I would use a scalpel
  • McCAIN: Nailing down Senator Obama’s various tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to the wall… I am not in favour of tax cuts for the wealthy. Let’s create jobs and let’s get our economy going again and let’s not raise taxes on anyone.
  • OBAMA: But I think it’s important to understand, we’re not going to solve Social Security and Medicare unless we understand the rest of our tax policies. And you know, Sen. McCain, I think the “Straight Talk Express” lost a wheel on that one.
  • On Health Care

  • McCAIN: He starts saying, government will do this and government will do that, and then government will, and he’ll impose mandates. If you’re a small business person and you don’t insure your employees, Sen. Obama will fine you. Will fine you. That’s remarkable. If you’re a parent and you’re struggling to get health insurance for your children, Sen. Obama will fine you. I want to give every American a $5,000 refundable tax credit. They can take it anywhere, across state lines. Why not? Don’t we go across state lines when we purchase other things in America?
  • OBAMA: If you’ve got a health care plan that you like, you can keep it. All I’m going to do is help you to lower the premiums on it. You’ll still have choice of doctor. There’s no mandate involved. Small businesses are not going to have a mandate. What we’re going to give you is a 50 percent tax credit to help provide health care for those that you need. Now, it’s true that I say that you are going to have to make sure that your child has health care. … The reason that it’s a problem to go shopping state by state, you know what insurance companies will do? They will find a state — maybe Arizona, maybe another state — where there are no requirements for you to get cancer screenings, where there are no requirements for you to have to get pre-existing conditions, and they will all set up shop there.
  • On Iraq

  • McCAIN: Sen. Obama was wrong about Iraq and the surge. He was wrong about Russia when they committed aggression against Georgia. And in his short career, he does not understand our national security challenges. We don’t have time for on-the-job training, my friends… My judgment is something that I think I have a record to stand on…. There was a lot at stake there, my friends. And I can tell you right now that Sen. Obama would have brought our troops home in defeat. I’ll bring them home with victory and with honor and that is a fundamental difference.
  • OBAMA: It’s true. There are some things I don’t understand. I don’t understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us… When Sen. McCain was cheerleading the president to go into Iraq, he suggested it was going to be quick and easy, we’d be greeted as liberators. That was the wrong judgment, and it’s been costly to us.
  • On Pakistan

  • McCAIN: Teddy Roosevelt used to say walk softly, talk softly, but carry a big stick. Senator Obama likes to talk loudly. In fact, he said he wants to announce that he’s going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable….
    Not true. Not true. I have, obviously, supported those efforts that the United States had to go in militarily and I have opposed that I didn’t think so. I understand what it’s like to send young American’s in harm’s way. I say — I was joking with a veteran — I hate to even go into this. I was joking with an old veteran friend, who joked with me, about Iran. But the point is that I know how to handle these crises. And Sen. Obama, by saying that he would attack Pakistan, look at the context of his words. I’ll get Osama bin Laden, my friends. I’ll get him. I know how to get him.
  • OBAMA: Now, Sen. McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I’m green behind the ears and I’m just spouting off, and he’s somber and responsible…. Sen. McCain, this is the guy who sang, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,’ who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don’t think is an example of speaking softly. This is the person who, after we had — we hadn’t even finished Afghanistan, where he said, ‘Next up, Baghdad.’ So I agree that we have to speak responsibly and we have to act responsibly. And the reason Pakistan — the popular opinion of America had diminished in Pakistan was because we were supporting a dictator, (former President Pervez) Musharraf, had given him $10 billion over seven years, and he had suspended civil liberties. We were not promoting democracy. This is the kind of policies that ultimately end up undermining our ability to fight the war on terrorism, and it will change when I’m president.
  • On Russia

  • McCAIN: We’re not going to have another Cold War with Russia. … We have to make the Russians understand that there are penalties for these, this kind of behavior, this kind of naked aggression into Georgia, a tiny country and a tiny democracy. And so, of course we want to bring international pressures to bear on Russia in hopes that that will modify and eventually change their behavior. Now, the G-8 is one of those, but there are many others. But the Russians must understand that these kinds of actions and activities are not acceptable and hopefully we will use the leverage, economic, diplomatic and others united with our allies, with our allies and friends in Europe who are equally disturbed as we are about their recent behaviors.
  • OBAMA: The resurgence of Russia is one of the central issues that we’re going to have to deal with in the next presidency. And for the most part I agree with Sen. McCain on many of the steps that have to be taken. But we can’t just provide moral support. We’ve got to provide moral support to the Poles and Estonia and Latvia and all of the nations that were former Soviet satellites. But we’ve also got to provide them with financial and concrete assistance to help rebuild their economies. Georgia in particular is now on the brink of enormous economic challenges. And some say that that’s what (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin intended in the first place. The other thing we have to do, though, is we’ve got to see around the corners. We’ve got to anticipate some of these problems ahead of time.


Senators John McCain and Barack Obama during Tuesday night’s debate. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama during Tuesday night's debate. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

Historians’ Comments

  • Gil Troy “McCain-Obama Take 2: Six Million Questions but Neither Has Good Answers:” We all knew what would happen. This second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain was going to be a slugfest. Journalists, who seem to forget that their job is to report what actually happened not predict what might occur, had been warning about it for days – although cautioning with the kind of glee that suggested they were as hopeful as appalled.
    The overwrought warnings of mudslinging made the actual event appear all the more subdued. Unwilling to ignore the undecided voters’ earnest questions as the stock market imploded, both Obama and McCain answered the questions carefully, soberly, respectfully. Most of the tension centered around the moderator Tom Brokaw’s timekeeping frustrations, as he repeatedly chided the candidates about keeping to their agreement. Brokaw seemed to forget that a moderator’s job is to go with the flow, that the American people tuned in to hear the presidential rivals not monitor their ability to follow some artificial rules which, Brokaw repeatedly reminded the candidates, they had “signed off on.”…
    The scariest thing about hearing both candidates sling clichés about the financial crisis is to realize how clueless they are – and will remain on January 20. If two smart, talented politicians, with such a clear incentive to give a thoughtful, reassuring analysis and plan can sound so lost, it is hard to know just who will magically appear on the scene to navigate the crisis. — HNN, 10-8-08
  • Alan Brinkley “Obama Finally Flashes Some Charm”: I really don’t like “town hall meeting” debates. First, they are (in this context) populist gimmicks to test a skill that has nothing to do with being president. Second, this was not a town hall meeting at all, but a scripted event with bad questions that the candidates had no choice but to evade.
    Having said that, I was surprised at how awkward and inarticulate McCain often was in a format that he claims to especially like and that he tried to induce Obama to join frequently over the summer. McCain was not embarrassing, and he had some good moments–as well as an interesting, but probably unworkable, proposal to have the Treasury buy up bad mortgages. But his body language and demeanor were mostly terrible, while Obama seemed fluid, comfortable, and–something that has not always been the case–charming.
    The substance of the debate had no surprises and didn’t vary much from the first debate. Given that all the polls, and the subsequent momentum, gave Obama the edge after the first debate, it’s pretty surprising that McCain said almost nothing that he hadn’t said earlier. Obama had no big new ideas either, but he’s not the one who has to turn the campaign around.
    I think the big advantage Obama has coming out of the debate is that he was more likable than he usually is– and that will make it much more difficult for the attack ads and the Palin barbs to turn things around.
    I saw nothing tonight that seems likely to change the current trajectory of the campaign. And that, of course, is good news for Obama. – TNR, 10-8-08
  • Michael Beschloss Discussing the Candidates: Obama has made a parallel himself that, like [Abraham] Lincoln, he only has a few years in public life, but he [Lincoln] made a great impact. … If Obama is elected with a large Democratic Congress, it could be one of those years when you have a president during a crisis, such as our financial crisis, with both houses of Congress in his party, and he can change things in a big way. It doesn’t work that way very often, but he could end up like [Franklin D. Roosevelt].
    We tend to not give the White House to the same party for three terms in a row. The only time it’s happened in modern times was with [George H.W.] Bush after [Ronald] Reagan. If McCain wins, it could mean he has a lot of political dexterity. And to distinguish oneself from an unpopular president is difficult. Just look at Adlai Stevenson, who tried to distance himself from [Harry] Truman, or Hubert Humphrey, who tried to distance himself from Lyndon Johnson, who was very unpopular at the time because of the Vietnam War. – Florida Times-Union
  • Stephen Hess on “McCain works to drive voters from Obama”: But while “character assassination is as American as apple pie and George Washington,” according to presidential historian Stephen Hess, “McCain’s problem is he lacks real ammunition.” – AFP, 10-7-08
  • Schuyler VanValkenburg on “Democratic Libel” The Internet and modern technology have allowed vitriol to amplify and multiply but they also have allowed us to return to this more participatory, grassroots democracy. – Style Weekly, 10-8-08


  1. I have to be honest! I am not impressed with either Barrack Obama or John McCain. These two a still clueless after nearly two years of campaigning for the presidency. Barrack played it safe by staying on message and massaging the audience for votes. John played it safe by confusing his lack of a message with a vague new idea about renegotiated mortgages.

    I am one of those independent voters both candidates are trying to convince. And, truth be known, tonight’s debate between John and Barrack was no help for them to get my vote. Tonight was McCain’s chance to mix things up and raise a few eyebrows.

    This presidential campaign has been too long. Something has got to be done when we are once more ready to make a similar decision some four years from now. These candidates feel like two relatives you have learned far too much about when they decide to visit your home ans they have stayed far too long.

    To think another set of wanna-bee presidential candidates, like Sarah Palin, could be today organizing their exploratory committees for 2012 is quite frightening.

    It would be one thing if John and Barrack’s rhetoric carried significant substance. It did not. While I am sure they believe what they are saying means something, I do believe I am not alone in stating their efforts to “stay on message” makes me feel like I am watching a bad paid for TV program about a new sandwich maker late at night and I have lost the remote.

    I have to admit Barrack’s suits are looking far more expensive these days and he looks good while wearing them. The sale of such threads will surely rise. It would have been nice to feel confident Barrack has some grasp of the world and how its politics works. I Just don’t feel he has a great sense of history…outside for how he THINKS John voted on this or that. When asked who he would replace Paulson with at Treasury, I was floored he had no person other than McCain’s choice of Obama supporter Warren Buffet. Hell, tell the man Mitt Romney….you know John McCain’s nemesis!

    I am not quite sure it means anything, but, it does appear Michelle Obama’s weight is being affected by this campaign season. I noticed the remarkable difference to her appearance as she walked onto the stage standing next to McCain’s second wife Cindy. If it is not that she has gained weight it could be she should avoid wearing red dresses and standing to close to the pencil thin Cindy McCain, who strangely enough wore blue.

    As for Mr McCain, John is looking older, crankier, and staid as the last 30 days wheels on by. He makes a substantive offer to have the government buy all the bad mortgages and have them renegotiated, BUT, he makes no effort to layout the details so we might taste the success of his plan. Perhaps it was not a part of his plan, but, a whim. Or, even better, one of the new notes he began scrawling on the pad he was not supposed to have with him at this debate.

    Also, his off the cuff shot at Tom Brokaw about not being one of his selections for the new Secretary of Treasury was useless and mindless. Such comments might play well in a cavernous auditorium full of supporters who laugh because they are delerious about your being the next great Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan.

    The first thing they teach you about public speaking is to make sure you know your audience. The audience in Nashville were carefully chosen independent voters who were looking for substance from their potential choice for the presidency. On several occasions throughout the night John made one sharp comment after another trying to play to the crowd in his clever old way. His condescending “that one” comment made while pointing to Obama seemed more to accentuate his cranky ancient demeanor than to pull from the crowd a feeling a choice for John is a good one.

    Obama and McCain, to me, seemed disconnected from the facts as they should be stated to support their promises that will be put on hold given the current economic conditions. I am aware that this is what politicians do in order to get elected in normal times. These times, however, are not normal times. Perhaps the enormous size of the economic problems of this country and the rest of the world makes small the very nature of each candidates promise and saying “they are as clueless” as we are about which one we will want to handle them would simply be political Kool-Aid.

    For the first time in the last 19 months, knowing what I do know about the human condition, I am somewhat fearful for those who do not have enough to eat tonight, a place upon which to sleep, and enough money for home heating oil to warm them in this coming harsh winter. I am somewhat hesitant about there being a clear direction for this country emerging from the new administration. Perhaps it is time WE TOOK THE REIGNS and explain to them how we want it to be led. How that is accomplished….I have not the foggiest.

    As odd as this may sound, the days following 9-11 seemed to have far more a feeling of direction than that of these days with these two candidates for the presidency of this good and great country.

    Again, as odd as this may sound, with all of the doubt I express above I still possess a great deal of hope we will see our way through the next four years of tough economic high unemployment times despite which president is in office.

    I still have to remind myself these two are vying to be the servant of a country with 300+ million leaders.

  2. The candidates have a major difference in their leadership styles: McCain tends to say, “Follow me because the other guy can’t get it done” while Obama says, “Follow me because I can get it done.” Ideally, the candidates should say, “Follow me because i will help you get it done” … in any case, of the two of them Obama demonstrates a better leadership mentality

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