Impressions of the First Democratic Debate

The effects of any debate comes in two parts, reaction to the initial debate, followed by how opinion is influenced by the subsequent coverage. As the first debate of the Democratic candidates did not appear likely to change many minds, I waited a day to see the reactions to the debate before commenting. For the most part, preexisting views of the candidates were reinforced.

Hillary Clinton, as expected, came off as the most polished candidate and showed that, like it or not, she has an excellent chance to win. While the pundits gave higher marks to Clinton, the early polls show an edge for Obama, probably because so many voters do not want Hillary regardless of how well she debates.

There was an occasional mention by the pundits that Edwards seemed out of his league, but his performance is unlikely to have changed any minds. Those of us who don’t feel he deserves consideration for major office will feel the same after the debate, but I doubt that those who do support him had their views of him changed. Even if Edwards could not move beyond his Breck Girl image, he opened up a whole new potential campaign theme, moving from the old promise of “a chicken in every pot” to keeping kids from being embarrassed by their father not being able to pay the prices on a menu.

I was most disappointed in Bill Richardson, not because he did a bad job but because he failed to excel as I thought he might in light of his resume. Richardson, unfortunately, is wrong when he says, “They don’t want blow-dried candidates with perfection.” Voters, and even many bloggers, are easily taken in by charisma and fail to look closely enough at substance. For Richardson to win he not only needs to hold his own but to come out of the debate looking like the smartest guy in the room, much as John Kerry did in the debates in 2003, causing me to get over my brief infatuation with Howard Dean.

Attention was distracted from Richardson’s expertise on foreign policy by repetition of the sound clip where he mistakingly referred to “a post-democratic Cuba.” While I doubt anyone will really believe Richardson intended to say this, the coverage of the gaffe drowned out coverage of Richardson’s actual answer. Richardson also needed to do a better job of staying on message in another answer. He needed to stress the fact that he did call for the resignation of Alberto Gonzales, as opposed to adding this as a footnote to a discussion of their common heritage.

Instead of Richardson, it was Joe Biden who emerged as the second tier candidate who obtained the most favorable publicity, and this was for simply saying “yes,” and nothing more, when asked:

Senator Biden, words have in the past gotten you in trouble, words that were borrowed and words that some found hateful. An editorial in the Los Angles Times said, “In addition to his uncontrolled verbosity, Biden is a gaffe machine.” Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?

In a sense, Mike Gravel was the big winner as he accomplished the most. He still has zero chance at winning, but he went from being an unknown to adding some comic relief in the absence of Al Shaprton. Dennis Kucinich came off as the candidate of the left as expected. Christopher Dodd came off as an experienced Senator, but did nothing to improve his standing in this year’s race where star power is more important.

All the candidates agreed on getting out of Iraq even if they disagreed on tactics, even if some (Hillary) rewrote history a bit on their previous public views. We received a little more information on the health care ideas of some of the candidates. Obama is sounding like he is drifting away from a single payer plan such as Kucinich advocates and is coming closer to Kerry’s 2004 ideas. Obama called for a “national pool that people can buy into if they don’t have health insurance, similar to the ones that most of us who are in Congress enjoy right now.” He also advocated subsidies for those who could not afford coverage, catastrophic coverage to address the problem of middle class people being forced into bankruptcy over medical bills, preventative care, and improved technology for medical records.

Richardson also stressed preventative care and improved information technology, although I suspect he overestimates the savings possible from decreased bureaucracy. Reducing the incidence of diabetes could save a considerable amount of money, but this would require changes in the diet and life styles of Americans and therefore would be difficult to achieve. I would like to hear more about how he would accomplish this goal: “I would also make sure that we would reestablish the doctor-patient relationship, eliminate those in the middle like HMOs and others.” A good answer to that one could earn him my vote.

A staple of every job interview is to ask an applicant about their mistakes or weaknesses, and those who are prepared find ways to turn them into a positive. Most of the candidates handled this well. Hillary Clinton, while still not apologizing for her vote on the IWR, deserves points for placing the blame on George Bush describing her mistake as “believing the president when he said that he would go to the United Nations and put inspectors into Iraq to determine whether they had WMDs.” This was a far better answer than that of John Edwards, who thinks an apology is sufficient even if not accompanied by any evidence he has learned anything more from his mistake than how to jump to the more popular camp.

On the same question, Richardson gave the typical job applicant type of answer by turning a virtue into a mistake in saying he is impatient to accomplish many of his goals. Obama handled this one the best by making the mistake an institutional one and using it to stress his opposition to the government’s involvement in the Terri Schiavo case.

Obama did look like he was in trouble when he left out Israel in the list of American allies, and then was asked, “You said recently, ‘No one is suffering more than the Palestinian people.’ Do you stand by that remark?” Obama recovered beautifully with:

Well, keep in mind what the remark actually, if you have the whole thing, said. What I said is, nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel, to renounce violence and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region. Israel has been one of our most important allies around the world. It’s the only established democracy in the Middle East. It’s the linchpin of much of our efforts in the Middle East. But the United States has to get engaged in this region, and that’s something that this president has not done. That’s something that I intend to do.

Obama had to come back from behind later on when Hillary Clinton came off as sounding tougher against terrorists in the response to the question of two American cities being hit a terrorist attack. Obama concentrated on some key points, but Hillary was tougher on going after countries which might have assisted the terrorists. Obama played catch up on the tough guy front later on by saying:

But one thing that I do have to go back on, on this issue of terrorism. We have genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down. Networks have to be dismantled. There is no contradiction between us intelligently using our military, and in some cases lethal force, to take out terrorists, and at the same time building the sort of alliances and trust around the world that has been so lacking over the last six years.

As relatively few voters probably watched this debate, and there will be many more debates which will be fresher in the minds of voters by next winter, this debate might be seen as a learning experience for the challengers. We know that Hillary Clinton will appear well in such forums. I am hopeful that others, such as Obama and Richardson, have learned from this debate and will do better in the next. This is especially important for Richardson, and other candidates in the second tier, if they are to remain at all viable.

Obama showed that he can learn quickly as his answers later in the debate improved from his earlier ones. One suggestion I would make for Obama is that saying he was opposed to the war from the start is an important point, but not enough for the knock out punch. He needs to get across the point that the question is not only where a candidate stands on the Iraq war today, now that it has been proven to be a tragic mistake, but the capacity for a leader to determine this from the start. An apology from John Edwards, or a promise to get us out by Hillary Clinton, means little if we cannot feel confident that they have the wisdom to prevent such mistakes in the future.

One other good point of this debate that I must mention is that there was no mention of “lock boxes.” The arguments from all the candidates sounded stronger than what we could expect to hear from the Republicans. I do wish Al Gore was there with the current candidates so that we could see if the Al Gore of 2007 is really the stronger candidate than the Al Gore of 2000 that many of us believe he would be.

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  1. 1
    yucca says:

    i think the ‘spot the difference’ nature of the pic you chose (from nyt, right?) says it all: vote for change, vote for hillary

    if one wants to be extremely simbolic, it could be pointed out that yes, obama is different too. but, from the picture, his difference is the one that gets absorbed by the suits of all the other candidates, not hillary’s (it might be that it’s because hillary fought to get the spot on the extreme right (or extreme left – but its the audience that matters).

    anyway, go hillary!

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    If the slogan is “vote for change” then I’d add vote for someone who is not named Clinton or Bush.

  3. 3
    yucca says:

    that, i acknowledge, is worrying… but she’s the only woman running. i too would have preferred some woman who was not related to such centre of power… but the fact that the first woman who has a serious chance happens to be the wife of a former president only reinforces the idea that it is so tough for women in politics that we must start the change from those who are already attached…

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    If your goal is to get a woman elected, then Hillary is your best bet. Looking at both parties, there are a handful of women who might have a chance as dark horses, but they would probably fall in the same range as Biden and Dodd in the polls. The only woman besides Hillary who has the slightest chance of being able to enter the race as a major contender would be Condi Rice.

    I look at policy issues as opposed to how much the candidate is like myself. Even beyond disagreements on policy, Hillary shows a lack of principle (which has been the topic of other posts) which would make it difficult for me to support her. While I haven’t decided on a candidate (and am not entirely thrilled with the choices offered) I currently have the most interest in watching the two candidates who I have the least in common with–Obama and Richardson. On the other hand, demographically my interest in Obama actually fits a pattern in a Pew survery I read last week. Obama does extremely well among white, male, affluent, midwestern whites.

    Until I read that survey I never even thought of the regional issue, but it does turn out that Obama lives closer to me than any Presidential prospect since Gerald Ford. Romney also has a Michigan background, but while I might have voted for his father-especially after he admitted he had been brainwashed on Vietnam–there is no way I’d vote for Mitt.

  5. 5
    pen says:

    I’m female and black and I wouldn’t vote for Obama or Hillary period.

    Its not about having a woman but the right woman for the job and hillary isn’t it. Niether is Condi- neither one of them has a honest bone in their bodies and they are more than happy to sell their souls, and in hillary’s case the soul of the dem party to get what they want.

    As for Obama, he doesn’t have the experience to clean up bush co mess foreign and domestic. The fact that his voting record mirrors hillary’s on Iraq but she gets all the flak is telling. Obama talked about people going bankrupt because of healthcare yet why did he vote for the bankruptcy bill a year or so ago that made it harder for those who are sinking under medical bills not to file for bankruptcy?

    We need somebody, smart, experienced in foreign affairs, environmental affairs and fisical dicipline in economics and none of those on the stage fit the bill.

    Iraq is a threat today but so is global warming and our toxic air and water.

    In another 20 years + people will be going to war for water just as much as oil and you can bank on it. There is nothing more precious on this planet than water and if we don’t have somebody in the whitehouse that can understand that then we are in deep $hit.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    The field is far from ideal. Obama’s position on Iraq has been significantly different from Hillary’s, with Obama opposing the war while Hillary was acting like a cheerleader for the war.

    Agree Obams has far less experience than we’d like to see, but I continue to watch him as possibly the best choice if we remain limited to the current top tier of candidates. Hillary is unacceptable. Edwards has far less experience than even Obama. While I see Obama as someone who could make an excellent candidate in another 8 years, I don’t see Edwards as ever being worthy of consideration. Among other problem, his position on Iraq was even worse than Hillary’s, and I’m not terribly convinced by his change of position now that it is more politically expedient.

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