Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Nevada Democratic Debate

After several days of nonsensical race-based acrimony, last night’s Democratic debate figured to be a love fest, with the candidates seated close to each other and trying to cut down on negativity which had permeated the campaign. I suspect that this will not be the last time this devolves into personal infighting, as Clinton and Obama are remarkably similar politically and much of this campaign is based on who they are rather than what they stand for. As for the LBJ-MLK controversy, Clinton was right, much ado has been made over nothing, as it was over Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” comment, and reflects an over-sensitivity which could completely backfire on Obama in the long run. I give Hillary credit for not backing off the premise of the statement in her subsequent discussions of it. Far too often politicians say something which is totally justifiable, then when they find out it upsets people, run away from it as fast as they can. Of course, the Clinton campaign is run in the classic modern manner, where the candidate stays a bit above the fray, while the surrogates say the most obnoxious things possible. Time and again Clinton’s surrogates say the kind of things, often about Obama and drugs, which are odious, yet somehow the campaign is doing nothing to stop them. Even after the departure of Bill Shaheen, there have been statements like Robert Johnson’s which carry disgusting implications with them. It is inconceivable to me that a responsible campaign has no stated policy regarding this, but then again, the Clintons are known for saying or doing whatever they have to in order to win, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Even yesterday, Charles Rangel was on TV saying utterly untrue things about Obama. It’s the Karl Rove technique – say enough bad things often enough and people will believe them.
As for the debate, once again Hillary proved to be the master (mistress?) of the form. Tight answers, with content and purpose, combined with complete command of the rhythm of things enabled her to dominate. The polls showed a tight, three-way race in NV, so she had to bloody John Edwards and did, with the Yucca Mountain exchange where she pointed out that he had voted for it not once, but twice, once to override a Clinton veto – a double-dip point which reinforced a Clintonian history of opposition. As for Obama, her pointing out his vote for the “Cheney Energy Bill” (a nice touch for HRC with that description), combined with his weak defense of it, was a knockdown punch. He fought back a bit by pointing out her using the “politics of fear” which was a Bush tactic, but in the end, I thought he seemed to be defending much more than anyone else throughout. Obama may have scored points against Edwards by claiming their small differences on Iraq were “distinctions without a difference”, but the fact that they were even discussing it left HRC above the fray on that issue, which has totally faded into the background in the Democratic debate. Obama also fails to attack Clinton’s readiness, which is a major problem for him. In fact, his weakest moment may have come when he defended his “the President doesn’t have to run everything, just provide a vision” statement. It was a weak defense and HRC attacked him effectively for it. He seems trapped in his own avowed political philosophy of uniting people. He only is able to counterpunch, not try and take the lead, which is why so much gets made of trivial Clinton statements, while not really going after her on big issues.
Edwards had a very good night, even if he got to talk less than the others. The format is okay, but would have been better with less formality. If you are going to have the candidates ask questions of each other, make sure you know the rules and make sure it’s fair. Edwards and Obama asked questions of each other but never got to ask one of Hillary. In fact, Russert refused to let Obama back off something that sounded like a question to Edwards. This was totally unfair. Clinton turned her question of Obama into a pro-Hillary statement which Obama had to agree with.
The real question with debates is who watched and what their reaction was. If enough NV voters watched, it could be big for HRC. But it’s possible that very few of the remarkably small percentage of Nevadans who will be caucusing watched, in which case, it matters far less. Obama is the better speaker, but fewer people see his speeches than see debates, and that is where Hillary shines. Overall, I thought Hillary won last night, Edwards was a solid second, with Obama third. Oh yeah, and it was really nice to not have Richardson and Kucinich there.

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