HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. Facing one another for the final time before Election Day, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain expressed sharp disagreements on taxes, the energy crisis, health care and abortion during the third presidential debate Oct. 15 at Hofstra University.
It was the last opportunity for the two men to make a direct appeal to voters on a national stage before Nov. 4. Much of the debate focused on the economy, which polls show is the top issue in the minds of voters.
"Americans are hurting right now, and they're angry," McCain said. "... They're innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street and as well as Washington, D.C.... And they want this country to go in a new direction."
McCain proposed taking $300 billion of the $700 billion bailout plan to buy bad mortgages and renegotiate them so that people can stay in their homes.
"I know the criticism of this -- 'Well, what about the citizen that stayed in their homes? That paid their mortgage payments?'" McCain said. "It doesn't help that person in their home if the next door neighbor's house is abandoned. And so we've got to reverse this. We ought to put the homeowners first. And I am disappointed that [Treasury] Secretary [Henry] Paulson and others have not made that their first priority."
Obama disagreed with McCain's proposal, saying it would be a "giveaway to banks if we're buying full price for mortgages that now are worth a lot less." Obama did call the bailout plan which both he and McCain supported in the Senate "an important first step."
"And I think that it's going to take some time to work itself out," he said. "But what we haven't yet seen is a rescue package for the middle class.... No. 1, let's focus on jobs. I want to end the tax breaks for companies that are shipping jobs overseas and provide a tax credit for every company that's creating a job right here in America. No. 2, let's help families right away by providing them a tax cut a middle-class tax cut for people making less than $200,000, and let's allow them to access their IRA accounts without penalty if they're experiencing a crisis."
Several of the exchanges during the debate focused on Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio plumber who recently had a five-minute-plus exchange with Obama at a campaign rally and expressed concern that he would face higher taxes under Obama's plan if he purchased a plumbing business he wants to buy. Wurzelbacher was mentioned 26 times during the debate, often as "Joe the plumber."
"Sen. Obama talks about the very, very rich," McCain said. "Joe, I want to tell you, I'll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for and be able and I'll keep your taxes low and I'll provide available and affordable health care for you and your employees. And ... I will not stand for a tax increase on small business income. Fifty percent of small business income taxes are paid by small businesses. That's 16 million jobs in America. And what [Obama wants] to do to Joe the plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business.... [W]e're going to take Joe's money, give it to Sen. Obama, and let him spread the wealth around. I want Joe the plumber to spread that wealth around."
Said Obama, "The conversation I had with Joe the plumber, what I essentially said to him was, 'Five years ago, when you were in a position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then,'" Obama said. "And what I want to do is to make sure that the plumber, the nurse, the firefighter, the teacher, the young entrepreneur who doesn't yet have money, I want to give them a tax break now. And that requires us to make some important choices.... Not only do 98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000, but I also want to give them additional tax breaks, because they are the drivers of the economy. They produce the most jobs.
"... [L]ook, nobody likes taxes. I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself. But ultimately, we've got to pay for the core investments that make this economy strong and somebody's got to do it."
The two men agreed that America could eliminate much of its dependence on foreign oil within 10 years, although they disagreed on how it could be done.
"We can eliminate our dependence on foreign oil by building 45 new nuclear plants, power plants, right away," McCain said. "... The point is with nuclear power, with wind, tide, solar, natural gas, with development of flex fuel, hybrid, clean coal technology ... we can easily, within seven, eight, 10 years if we put our minds to it eliminate our dependence on the places in the world that harm our national security."
Said Obama: "We only have three to four percent of the world's oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world's oil, which means that we can't drill our way out of the problem. That's why I've focused on putting resources into solar, wind, biodiesel, geothermal. These have been priorities of mine since I got to the Senate, and it is absolutely critical that we develop a high fuel efficient car that's built not in Japan and not in South Korea, but built here in the United States of America. We invented the auto industry and the fact that we have fallen so far behind is something that we have to work on."
McCain and Obama disagreed strongly about health care, saying each other's proposed plan would cripple the system. McCain said Obama "wants government to do the job," while Obama said that McCain's proposal for a $5,000 health care tax credit for each family would fall short of what the average plan costs.
The subject of abortion came up for the first time in the presidential debates, with moderator Bob Schieffer asking each man if they could nominate someone to the Supreme Court who disagrees with them on abortion. McCain opposes the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, Obama supports it.
"I thought it was a bad decision," McCain said. "I think that decision should rest in the hands of the states. I'm a federalist. And I believe strongly that we should have nominees to the United States Supreme Court based on their qualifications rather than any litmus test.... I will find the best people in the world -- in the United States of America who have a history of strict adherence to the Constitution, and not [in] legislating from the bench.... We have to change the culture of America [on abortion]. Those of us who are proudly pro-life understand that. And it's got to be courage and compassion that we show to a young woman who's facing this terribly difficult decision."
Said Obama, "It is true that this is going to be, I think, one of the most consequential decisions of the next president. It is very likely that one of us will be making at least one and probably more than one appointments and Roe versus Wade probably hangs in the balance. I would not provide a litmus test. But I am somebody who believes that Roe versus Wade was rightly decided.... [W]hat ultimately I believe is that women in consultation with their families, their doctors, their religious advisers, are in the best position to make this decision. And I think that the Constitution has a right to privacy in it that shouldn't be subject to state referendum."