February 1, 2008

And then there were two

In L.A. terms, last night's debate was a buddy picture.

It didn't live up to the media's breathless billing as a sure bloodbath, a nasty cage match to the death, that the media hyped it as, and the fact that it was anything but was particularly satisfying.

Both candidates seemed to have come to an agreement beforehand that they'd stick to the theme of party unity and mutual respect. The debate looked to be a holding action by both candidates, perhaps an indication that they were both pretty satisfied with where they currently stood, Hillary ahead in the polls, Obama closing the gap and gaining momentum, with neither wanting to risk anything that might shake things up.

It was also one of the best of the 18, (18??!!) debates that the Dems have participated in. Having only two candidates on stage allowed the debate to be more long-form and allowed for more relaxed, detailed, and complete answers. There wasn't the frantic clawing to interrupt and fight for air-time, and the pressure to shoehorn talking points into the conversation by any means necessary wasn't quite as evident.

Both candidates were able to speak without fear of interruption and had the opportunity to actually marshal their thoughts and, for the first time, actually explain their policies at the length they demand. They were able to actually articulate their views and policy goals in a way that viewers could actually understand.

In that respect, it was also the most informative and helpful debate of the series.

Though it was one of the most constructive and helpful debates in which to try to make a choice, I found that it almost made it even tougher.... they're both so substantive, so able, their goals and ideas so attractive and necessary, that at least to my mind, the choice between Obama and Clinton was if anything, even more difficult than before.

This is a deliciously horrible problem, being beset by two candidates whose strengths and drawbacks nearly make them identical. It's tough to base a choice on some minor distinction, yet on balance, that's all that really separates the two.

The more numerous, relatively minor flaws of Clinton's past, her voting record on the war, and so on are nearly perfectly balanced by questions of Obama's experience, ability to handle the job, and ability to "operate the levers of power", as the phrase goes.

Until now, the average voter could be excused for not really understanding how either candidate differed from the other. (Maybe that's the reason for the truly strange obsession with race by the media until this point)

In that respect, this was a fantastic event, as it allowed the candidates to explain the differences in their policy proposals, and the differences are important, but only in the process they prefer to achieve the same goals, particularly on health care.

Both were effusive in their praise for John Edwards who'd just dropped out from the race without offering any endorsement. The very first words out of Obama's mouth were in praise of Edwards and both candidates thanked him for highlighting the plight of "forgotten Americans", the poor, and the underclass, and pledged that they'd do all they could to make Edward's fight for the powerless a priority for them.

Though speculation ran rampant, none of the pundits would dare venture a guess as to where Edwards supporters might go now that their guy was out of the race. Many broached the idea of Edwards as Secretary of Labor (Matthews) or Attorney General (other pundits) and I'd love to see him in either post, as I'm sure he'd be bloody hell for those who've been able to game and abuse the system without consequence under Republican rule.

Rather than beat on each other, each made very strong cases against the current disaster in the White House and their Republican rivals, particularly John "Captain Queeg" McCain. Particularly when panelists asked how they'd counter the charge that Dems represent "tax and spend" policies, Obama hit that softball out of the park, noting that with their all-time high rampant out-of-control spending, the Republicans aren't exactly in a good position to make that argument, saying he'd love to have a debate on that issue.

A few other possible lines of attack by Republicans were trotted out, and each time it was obvious that both Dems were ready, willing, and able to take on the debate, and that they'd obviously win. It brought to focus just how incredibly weak the Republicans are. They've got precious little to stand on, and even what they are deciding to champion, such as endless war and permanent tax cuts for the very wealthy, are incredibly unpopular among the country at large.

Obama revealed a couple positions which might be dynamite to Republican opposition, such as his being in favor of driver’s licenses for illegal aliens. His reasoning was sound, but of course, that means little when it comes to opponents being able to bludgeon and distort an issue.

When Obama suggested that the notion of some blacks that illegal immigrants are taking their jobs amounts to unjustified scapegoating, Hillary took a bit tougher stand on immigration, appearing to say that Latin immigrants are indeed taking jobs from blacks and their resentment is justified. At least one pundit noted this was an attempt to drive a wedge between blacks and Latinos and were a bit shocked.

Both candidates came across very well, with Hillary getting off perhaps the line of the night. In response to the complaint that if she should win the presidency, the office will have been held by members of only two families for at least 30 straight years, Hillary deftly dispatched it by quipping, "Well, it took one Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, maybe it takes another to clean up after the second."

Perhaps Obama's line of the night was in his response to Clinton's catch phrase, "Ready on day one." He noted in questioning Clinton's judgment on her votes to give Bush authority to go to war and other votes construed as pro-war, "You not only have to be ready on day one, you have to be right on day one."

Clinton gave a lengthy and necessarily convoluted attempt to explain why she voted to authorize Bush to go to war, saying as usual that she didn't think Bush would actually go to war, that she'd been lead to believe that Bush would allow the weapons inspectors more time. This of course is rather incredible, as pointed out by Obama when he noted the obvious - the title of the bill plainly indicated it was an authorization to go to war, and noting the obvious - that everyone else in the world realized that Bush was going to launch a war.

This is clearly one of Clinton's biggest weaknesses. She simply doesn't have the facts to explain this away. And when Obama is standing on the fact that he has always opposed the invasion, it's one of the biggest distinctions between the two.

But in a hopeful sign, moderator Wolf Blitzer was roundly booed by the audience when he injecting himself into the debate, asking Clinton after her response, "So what you're saying is that you were naive by believing Bush?" That may have been a legitimate follow-up, but the audience, perhaps anxious to keep things civil between the candidates, was clearly not going to have a talking head try to stir things up as they seemed determined to do.

To digress a moment, I think the press far too often confuses making a candidate uncomfortable or simply throwing them off stride with actually holding them to account or forcing them to reveal something they are with-holding, in other words, journalism. This sometimes requires a bit of belligerence and tenacity, but belligerence by itself, or simply taking swipes at politicians to try to conform to their agreed upon story line, shouldn't be confused with good journalism.

Their job is to get information, number one, and to get to the truth. But for too long, they've somehow devolved into thinking that a good journalist simply provokes good theatre, never mind if it sheds any light on the subject or helps provide more information to the public. That's the problem. But increasingly there are tiny signs that the public is finally sick of it.

Post-debate , my close, personal friend David Axelrod, Obama's campaign manager/spokesman, (and by close, personal friend, I of course mean that I spoke briefly with him a couple times), was interviewed in the raucous spin room and performed admirably. Like Obama, he seems to be learning as he goes, and improving with each performance. Of course, it doesn't hurt when your guy is riding the crest of a wave.

Clinton's front man, Pollster/PR guru Mark Penn also was interviewed and was notable for his sweating profusely, initially showing some sweat on his lip and by the end of the interview, the sweat was practically dripping off his chin. Could this be any indication of the mood of Camp Clinton, or simply that Penn is an obviously well-fed guy that might be expected to break a sweat while ice fishing?

What were your impressions of the debate?


At 2/01/2008 6:19 PM, Anonymous emily said...

Well, neither Penn nor Axelrod are even personal friends by your definition, but your description of Mark Penn is on the money from every interview I've seen and everything I've read about him. However, I do know people who work for him, and they tell me he is an absolute pig. He has an incredible ego, cares nothing about what anyone thinks, and says he is in charge of everything. Unless things go wrong. Then it's Mandy's fault, or Terry's fault, or Patty's fault...or Hillary or Bill.

On the other hand, I've seen Axelrod on TV and read about him. I can believe is is no less tough or focused as Mark Penn, but he is a class act. Watching him after the debate last night was a pleasure, compared to the calculating slob repping Clinton.

Incidentally, I heard an MSNBC commentator wondering about the description of Penn as "conservative". (I think it was Scarborough. Well, from people who know him, Penn is as right wing as you can get. If we bombed Iran he'd be for it. Her was totally in favor of the Iraq war.

At 2/01/2008 6:22 PM, Blogger Benton Harbor said...

Dope... unfortunately I didn'watch the debate for the simple reason that there have been too many of them with little meat other than namecalling, etc. You've given a pretty good synopsis of what happened - thanks for that - and I've seen a couple of clips that make me mad at myself that I didn't watch.

But I guess that's my issue. There have been way too many of these things without substance and like so much else in this campaign season, have just worn me out. My loss.

At 2/02/2008 6:51 AM, Blogger The Inside Dope said...

Penn is a HUGE (literally and figuratively) PR guy and CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a huge PR firm (5th largest in the country) as well as head of a major polling company.

He was an instrumental advisor to Bill Clinton, and now to Hillary.

The rep of being conservative stems in large part from some of the clients he's represented, many of which are less than left leaning.

Clients include Microsoft, Shell Oil, and many corporations in the nuclear power, defense, and pharmaceuticals industry.

In representing their clients, B-M has engaged in confrontational attacks against consumer and environmental groups and has been particularly anti-labor in representing their clients to the point where several top labor leaders immediately wrote letters of complaint when he was hired by the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Penn is also linked to the conservative Democratic Leadership Council by way of his wife, who is a senior advisor to Sen. Evan Bayh, national finance chair of the DNC.

At 2/02/2008 7:03 AM, Blogger The Inside Dope said...

Though I haven't spent the time looking, it may be possible to find somewhere where you could watch the thing online, though that is admittedly not the best viewing experience.

Judging from your often informed comments, you certainly shouldn't fault yourself for missing the debate, as you're far more involved and informed than most voters and should be commended.

But it truly was a very different kind of debate.

I agree that far too often, well, pretty much ALL the time, the debates as they're set up are really pretty useless. They not only don't help voters determine where candidates stand, they actually ADD to the confusion and mis-information. They not only don't help, they actually HURT the chances that voters can get straight answers and info upon which to base their choices.

There's too many candidates (though I certainly don't think they should exclude any) and the fact that they have to squeeze the thing into some TV time slot ensures that about all you get is a bunch of desperate candidates clawing and butting in, fighting tooth, fang, and claw to make sure they get heard.

And the result is all too familiar, and discouraging to boot... a bunch of talking over each other and chaos that resembles more a "who done it" at a pre-school than a serious event.

I am very pleased that they had so many debates this year. It gave viewers the ability to see the candidates at specific moments in time during the campaign. Since campaigns and events are so fluid and change so rapidly, this was good.

Issues of the day also ebb and flow, often determined by real world events, and the fact that there were so frequent debates allowed candidates to address them as well.

I think having numberous debates is better than fewer. Given that in a typical debate, you might get a few seconds of insight into a candidate or they might actually be able to get a point across, if you add that up across many debates, and you're somehow able to catch them all, you might be able to cobble together a fairly informed opinion.

That said, I STILL can't decide who I'd vote for if the election were today. (and it almost is!)

As I've noted many times, if your biggest problem is trying to pick the best candidate when they're all very good and you'd be very satisfied that any of them would make a fine president, it's not bad.

Sure beats the usual situation where you have to choose the "least worse" candidate!

At 2/02/2008 11:21 AM, Blogger nicodemus said...

Well I would like to ask David Axelrod why he and his wife gave thousands of dollars to Gov. Blagojevich in the last fundraising cycle, according to the D-2s. Looks like the "great guru" doesn't have such good judgement.

There is obviously a benefit in having only two candidates and you're right it makes for better quality of answers. But I still miss Mike Gravel and I think Obama still seems a little bit too much "on the surface". This highlights Hillary's experience and knowledge. Enough with the generalities, I want to hear minutae and wonkish policy positions from Barack.

Yes, obviously there is a credibility problem with the Republicans and spending. McCain has consistently pointed this out and his willingness to veto wasteful spending. Still it will be hard for one Senator to overcome the perception that his party has been fiscally irresponsible. Because they have been! It's not like the good old days.

80% of federal spending is in entitlements and "structural debt". Social Security is the 1000-lb. elephant in the living room. Does any candidate have the courage to take that on, let alone be effective in addressing out-of-control entitlements? It would be political suicide.

At 2/02/2008 1:04 PM, Blogger tiz said...

I watched it - it seemed more civil than the previous debate (duh). Maybe they should have them sit down more often. As soon as it came on I go to my wife "Jesus, I'm pretty much color blind and even I know blue and brown don't go together" (in reference to Hillary's brown outfit with blue jewelery). I was then informed that blue and brown are in now. And for once I thought I had something witty to say while watching one of these things. Oh well.

The one thing I wish Barack would say with respect to driver's licenses (and maybe he has, but I haven't seen it) is what happens when a group of people really need to drive but can't. They drive anyway. Some simply drive without a license that they would otherwise go and get. If you have a republican secretary of state you can grease the wheels to get bogus licenses and, you know, kill people in Wisconsin. I'm just saying, I think those of us in and around Illinois might understand why we want everyone on the road to have legit, valid driver's licenses a little bit better than the rest of the country.

At 2/02/2008 4:16 PM, Blogger Andy said...

I thought the debate was by the most substantive of the bunch so far. I thought that Obama looked just as knowledgeable and “wonky as Hillary, which was a win for him. I thought they were both very impressive.

The format did lead to an opportunity to make Hillary uncomfortable about Iraq. She tried to dance around the issue and make her and Obama’s record sound similar, but he never let up on the original decision. Whether she actually believes it or not, if she had just been able to admit that the vote was a mistake this issue could have been neutralized. John Edwards admitted right off the bat that he regretted that vote and it went away as an issue. Hillary is still trying to protect her national security bona fides for the general election, but if it’s McCain, national security is a loser for her.

At 2/02/2008 11:05 PM, Blogger The Inside Dope said...

Tiz... HA! That cracked me up when you mentioned Hillary's outfit.

I didn't want to mention it because...well, it's kinda trivial, but boy, I too found myself wondering, what the hell??!! hahaha!

I started noticing something looked bad, and then realized it was her drab appearance. I even mentioned this to the Dopette, and tried to at least give her some credit for having the torquoise or whatever it was earings and necklace... at least there was SOME color, but sheesh! haha!

I mean, I'm no fashion guru, and far from qualified to decide what's hot and what's not, but I knows it when I sees it, as they say.

I was wondering why she didn't at least wear a contrasting and more colorful top to try to fight off that dreadful color of brown.

I guess it's good to hear that those decidedly icky colors are officially approved of. Because to me, it looked like ... well.. you can probably fill in the blank.

OK, that's my official indulgence in the trivial.

At 2/03/2008 10:41 PM, Blogger Tacky said...

I agreee with your comments about the press. We do not need a performance rating of the journalists, we want information. We needed the "debaters" ( they do not actually debate) to clearly indicate their differences on the important issues. Such as Iraq. There was barely a discussion on which candidate would bring our troops home sooner.
It seems clearer between what McCain says and what Obama says about the war. The press ( and today I watched three press interviews) barely mentioned Iraq as an issue.
Everyone had to talk about their choices regarding the pending Super Bowl. Hey, we have a war on; our young men and women are dying. I boycotted watching the games as a result. Did our troops cancel patrols to watch the game. That's a good question a journalist could have asked.

At 2/04/2008 10:42 AM, Blogger The Inside Dope said...

Well said Tacky... and welcome back.


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