It’s fitting that the two Democratic finalists debated last night in the Los Angeles theatre that hosts the Oscars. The envelopes, please...
Most cringe-worthy imagery: Democratic party leaders were not well served by CNN, which kept training its cameras on the Hollywood celebrities in attendance. Look, there’s Diane Keaton wearing white gloves! And Stevie Wonder in cornrows! And Rob Reiner (twice)! Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are on stage trying to talk about the everyday vicissitudes of the average Joe...and, meanwhile, the cameras are focused on people who probably define "poverty" as the inability to afford a Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV. This kind of imagery hurts the Democrats in the heartland.
Most invoked Republican: John McCain. His name was first invoked by Obama barely 30 minutes into the debate, and five times thereafter. Obama was intent on making the case to undecided primary voters, particularly former John Edwards voters, that he, not Hillary, would be a more formidable candidate against McCain. He repeatedly stressed this theme, which suggests that he’s not yet confident of his standing with the Democratic base; by contrast, Hillary never tried to trump him and argue for her own superior electability, which suggests that her confidence level is higher on the eve of Tsunami Tuesday.
Still, when Obama linked the electability theme to Hillary’s 2002 Iraq war authorization vote, he racked up a few debating points: "I would be the Democrat most effective in going up against John McCain or any other Republican…I would offer a clear contrast, as somebody who never supported this war, thought it was a bad idea. I don’t want to just end this war, I want to end the mindset that got us in the war in the first place." And speaking of the war...
Worst defensive crouch: Hillary. After 18 debates, she still has the same problem. Whenever the discussion turns to what happened during the prelude to war, she is back on her feels, trying in vain to explain herself. I’ve already written at length about her ’02 vote, and her various attempts to defend it; without reprising the whole topic, suffice it to say that she can’t extinguish it with a few well-chosen phrases. Her defense is convoluted, and doesn’t play well in a debate format.
By contrast, Obama can reduce his position to a sentence – he was against the war then, and against it now – notwithstanding the fact that he has voted in sync with Hillary to fund the troops. And even though this particular debate was civil (more on that below), he still managed, repeatedly, to link her war vote to his larger theme about judgment. He took her line about being "ready on day one" and gave it a twist: "It is important to be right on day one."
On the other hand, I question whether many undecided Democrats are going to base their decisions on what the candidates were doing or saying about Iraq nearly six years ago.
Smartest response on a politically sensitive topic: Hillary. A black worker wanted to know why the candidates aren’t addressing the growing problem of joblessness and wage loss in the black community, caused by "the flood of immigrant labor." That was a tricky one, given black-brown tensions in some locales, and the fact that Hillary and Obama are competing for both black and Latino votes next Tuesday.
Obama, perhaps mindful that he needs help from Latinos in the California primary, stood up for Latinos and said that the questioner was "scapegoating." Hillary’s answer was far more nuanced. She stood up for the average worker: "I believe that in many parts of our country, because of employers who exploit undocumented workers and drive down wages, there are job losses. And I think we should be honest about that. There are people who have been pushed out of jobs in factories and meat processing plants and all kinds of settings."
Hillary has a lot of support among downscale workers, and they probably appreciated that. And then she segued into her Latino-friendly pitch for a comprehensive path to citizenship – requiring illegal immigrants to learn English, pay taxes, and wait in line – and "once we have those conditions met, and people agree, then they will not be in a labor market that undercuts anybody else's wages." She was substantive without being wonky, and deftly defused the issue’s underlying racial tensions.
Lamest response on a politically sensitive topic: Hillary. When it was pointed out that many Democrats are worried about Bill Clinton’s role in a Hillary White House, she switched to auto-pilot: "At the end of the day, it is my name that's on the ballot. And it will be my responsibility as president and commander in chief, after consulting broadly with a lot of people who have something to contribute to difficult decisions, I will have to make the call. And I am fully prepared to do that....and that is what I'm asking to be entrusted to do."
But that answer didn’t begin to address the substantive questions that have been raised lately about Bill Clinton’s various business, consulting, and fund-raising endeavors, and whether his activities might complicate her White House decision-making.
For instance, Obama did her a favor by failing to bring up the New York Times investigative story that ran yesterday. It disclosed that Bill and a mining financier recently did a business deal with the despot who runs Kazakhstan; that the financier has since donated $30 million to Bill’s charitable foundation; and that Bill has been trying to get the Kazakh despot a job heading up an international group that champions democracy and free elections. Meanwhile, this despot, who rigged his own election in 2005, has been denounced for human rights violations…by Senator Hillary Clinton. And this is just once case study.
Most gallant moment since Walter Raleigh spread his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth I: Obama, at debate's end, pulling out Hillary's chair so that she could stand. This visual was no doubt intended to replace the "snub" visual, whereby Obama appeared to turn away from Hillary on State of the Union night. And just in case the chivalry visual wasn't enough, they smiled upon each other at such close range that they seemed on the verge of a lip lock. Hey, cosmetics matter. They wanted to send a message that the Democrats are in no danger of tearing themselves asunder (unlike many times in the past).
They also realize that the race could go on for awhile, way past Feb. 5, and become a guerilla war for delegates. Hence their civility last night (a deliberately sought contrast to the McCain-Romney enmity). Hillary and Obama clearly sense the need to pace themselves, and that might be good advice for the rest of us.