Friday, April 27, 2007

An impressionistic take on the Democratic debate

Here are some quick impressions of the Democratic presidential candidates debate (video here), staged last night in South Carolina:

Hillary Clinton. She is certainly deft at evasion. Several times she was hit with sensitive questions, and she went slip sliding away. When she was asked whether she agreed with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid’s contention last week that the Iraq war was lost, she replied, “This is not America’s war to win or lose.” Then, much later in the evening, she was asked about Rudy Giuliani’s contention the other night that American lives would be more imperiled with a Democrat in the White House (Giuliani: “Democrats do not understand the full nature and scope of the terrorist war against us,” and therefore, with a Democrat in charge, “we will have more losses…America will be safer with a Republican president”). More specifically, she was asked why the Democrats have long been saddled with a weak-on-national-security image, but in reply she ignored that theme, and focused exclusively on why she thought the GOP didn’t deserve its strength image (Republicans “hype the fear without delivering the promise of making America safer”). Elsewhere in the debate, on Iraq, she repeated her standard line about she had cast her ’02 war authorization vote based on the best information available at the time, and suggested that President Bush had duped her by moving too aggressively to invade; the Democratic left has long been annoyed by that stance, but it’s old news. Overall, she said nothing to imperil her early front-runner status. And she did manage to give herself a Golda Meir moment (i.e. a female leader has to exude toughness), when she said that, in the wake of a domestic terrorist attack, “a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate…Let’s focus on those who attack us, and do everything we can to destroy them.”

Barack Obama. He’s not well suited for a format that requires 60-second answers (at least not yet). On the stump, he does best when he can indulge his penchant for lofty eloquence; that trait doesn’t work on a crowded stage. He was repeatedly asked specific questions that required glib, focused answers, and he repeatedly tried to get lofty in response. When he was asked about his old friendship with indicted Chicago slumlord Antoin “Tony” Rezko (a focus of Chicago newspaper reports), he said that Rezko is just one of many donors who has contributed money - then quickly flashed back to his days in the Illinois legislature, where he championed ethics bills and built “a track record of bringing people around to this kind of politics.” Elsewhere in the debate, he was asked whether he agreed with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to outlaw late-term abortions; in reply, he punted, saying only that the late-term procedure “is a profoundly difficult issue,” and that he preferred to address “the broader issue” of abortion itself. Also elsewhere in the debate, he was asked the standard South Carolina question, about whether the state should still be flying the confederate flag; he replied that the flag belonged “in a museum” (which didn’t fully answer the question), then quickly segued by saying “we’ve got an enormous debate that’s taking place in this country right now” concerning black infant mortality. At another point, when asked about reforming health care, he managed a few lines in response, enough perhaps to mask the fact that he has yet to come up with a health care plan of his own.

John Edwards. He spent some of his time aiming fire at the two candidates listed above. He again chided Clinton for not apologizing, as he has done, for the ’02 war authorization vote: “I think that’s a question for the conscience of anybody who voted for this war. Senator Clinton or anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves…” He also implied that Obama is all eloquence and no substance: “Rhetoric is not enough. High-falutin’ language is not enough.” Elsewhere, he apologized for having a $400 haircut and charging it to his campaign, then suggested that the episode doesn’t embody who he really is: a guy with humble beginnings, which launched him into a story about how his family had to leave a restaurant because his dad couldn’t afford the menu prices. That’s the Edwards MO, to stress his log-cabin creds, as a counterpoint to his adult life as a rich trial lawyer. (Although he was less successful when he tried to explain how his recent job as counsel to a New York hedge fund squares with his concern for the underprivileged.) Elsewhere in the debate, he, like Obama, evaded the question of whether he agreed with the high court ban on late-term abortion (“this is an extraordinarily difficult issue for America”), although there were no evasions when he touted his detailed health care insurance plan, the boldest of the bunch (although having the boldest health plan of 2004 didn’t help Dick Gephardt survive Iowa). Finally, he had one other noteworthy moment last night. Near the end, the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they agreed with the proposition that the U.S. was engaged in a global war on terror. Edwards didn’t raise his. He later explained that although, yes, there were many bad people in the world, “but we have more tools available to us than bombs” to sway global hearts and minds. Have the GOP message-meisters noticed that Edwards didn’t raise his hand?

The second tier. Bill Richardson had my favorite line of the night: The American people “don’t want blow-dried candidates with perfection.” This was his way of defending his own imperfections, such as his recent decision to cut Alberto Gonzales some extra slack just because the attorney general, like Richardson, is Hispanic. Anyway, I wonder if his reference to “blow-dried candidates” was aimed at Edwards, the guy on the rung just above him….Joe Biden’s one memorable moment came when, in response to a question about his notorious loquacity, he answered with a single word and then fell silent, although he did later emphasize (who can disagree?) that Iraq can’t be stabilized without a political solution…Chris Dodd had a few lame moments. When he was asked how a career Washington politician (32 years) who takes money from lobbyists (via the Senate banking committee) can be expected to reform Washington, he lapsed into a reminiscence about his father (another senator) “tried cases in South Carolina in the ‘40s,” and how he, the son, is a “pro-growth Democrat,” which had little to do with the question….As for Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, the also-rans from the party’s left flank, they basically harangued the top-tier candidates for being insufficiently liberal and insufficiently pacifist – which probably aided those candidates greatly, in terms of appealing to centrist voters (assuming any were watching). Obama, for instance, needs to establish strong national security creds, and here was Gravel ranting that Obama wants to foment war with Iran (“Barack, who do you want to nuke?”), which merely gave Obama a chance to exude tough-guy vibes: Iran is developing nuclear weapons, “and that is a profound security threat to America and one we have to take seriously.” Obama should pay Gravel’s expenses to all future debates.