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June 04, 2007

Debate Impressions

I'll second the emergent CW that Hillary took this one, and took it easily. The best performances of the night were actually delivered by Biden, but Hillary didn't need to be the best -- merely the most commanding, and at ease. Obama, after a halting, nervous start, also delivered, proving fluent on policy, capable of hard rejoinders (as when he responded to Edwards' "legislating or leadership" formula by reminding Edwards, "John, I think the fact is I opposed this war from the start, so you're about four-and-a-half years late on leadership on this issue"), and willing to stand against Blitzer's absurd "raise your hand if English should be the official language" question.

The contentious performance of the night was Edwards. David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register said “Edwards probably did himself the most good,” and a survey of a handful of New Hampshire voters backed Yepsen up. The survey taken in my living room wasn't quite so positive. I thought Edwards did terribly -- though possibly while doing exactly what he needed to do. There was a clear difference on the stage between Hillary, Obama, and Biden -- who were acting like they were going to be president -- and the others, who were acting like they were running for president. Edwards' every answer was an attack, an attempt to wrest position and score points. His early assaults on the spending bill were particularly flat; since Clinton and Obama both voted as he wished, he was reduced to criticizing them for voting late in the roll call. And since Edwards showed very little leadership on this as a legislator, his sharp complaints easily set up Obama's riposte.

Now, Edwards is running for president, and he needs to solidify his role as challenger. In that, his performance may well have been effective. But even if he landed some punches -- and my sense was that far more of his blows fell short or flew wide -- they didn't simultaneously build him as a viable alternative. This is, in part, because his avenues of attack just weren't very good. He made a poor case against Obama's health plan, and tried to sharpen it by attacking Obama for leaving children out -- a factually incorrect approach because, as Obama helpfully informed him, the plan mandates coverage for children. He went for the throat on the spending bill, but not on the actual issue of Iraq, or use of force. In general, he attacked, rather than contrasted. In the past, I've always respected Edwards' ability to wrap his critique in a positive vision -- to diminish the other candidates by highlighting his own strengths. That skill was not in evidence last night.

As for the others, Richardson is easily the most grating of the set. His casual buy-in to Republican attacks ("I'm a pro-growth Democrat") is a true disappointment, and I'd love to see someone ask him which Democrats are pro-shrinkage. Dodd did a good job, and his final statement -- that his first move as president would be to restore civil liberties -- usefully highlighted an oft-overlooked issue. Kucinich and Gravel were both well used in this forum as voices willing to say what others wouldn't. Kucinich particularly took to the role, and helpfully responded to Wolf's "yes or no" question of whether you'd kill civilians to eliminate bin Laden by asking "how many civilians are we talking about?" Yes, Wolf, how many indeed?

June 4, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Every answer was an attack?

Really? You have a strange defintion of attack. Have you grown so accustomed to the let's-all-get-along-my-good-friend-Senator-Hitler world of presidential debates that a little polite criticism makes you uncomfy?

Edwards was merely highlighting differences, which is what you're supposed to do in a debate. It doesn't surprise me that a lot of people think Edwards won, because it was he who brought life to the debate, who cared enough to mildly puncture the destructive, frontrunner-friendly decorum that prevails at these sorts of these things. As soon as Edwards started criticizing the other candidates, the people in my living room--non-politicos and not supporters of Edwards--sat up in their seats, not because his jabs necessarily hit home, but because Edwards made it interesting, and seemed interesting doing it.

As for the susbstance and effectiveness of the crticism, I'd say Edwards did pretty well, not great. I think he converyed the impression fairly well that Obama and Clinton are timid. He was far too kind about Obama's health care proposal, saying he didn't think it's universal. He should have simply stated that it's not universal, because it's not. But he had a great moment when he said Obama had been right on iraq, and he'd been wrong, and then broke into a little very effective speech about the need for honesty as Clinton grimanced beside him.

In any case, you're right, Ezra, it doesn't really matter if Edwards scored points. The important thing is that he's begun to highlight differences, undermining Clinton's effort to blur them, and now today people will be talking about those differences. And there are plenty more where those came from: on trade, the environment, on taxes...I was afriad that Edwards would wait too long before challenging the other two, less progressive frontrunners. I'm thrilled that he decided to go on "the attack.

The race started last night.


Posted by: david mizner | Jun 4, 2007 11:25:15 AM

"The contentious performance of the night was Edwards. David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register said “Edwards probably did himself the most good,” and a survey of a handful of New Hampshire voters backed Yepsen up. The survey taken in my living room wasn't quite so positive."

The type of demagoging Edwards was doing early in the debate wasn't geared at you and your politically savvy friends, Ezra.

It was perfect pitch politics, however, and it bodes well for his future in the primary race, for his general election race, and for the communication ability of his White House.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 4, 2007 11:44:47 AM

Edwards did what he had to do, and it was pretty effective. Obama hung in there, and wasn't outclassed. But neither of them did well enough to "win" the debate.

The main thing I take away from this debate is a renewed appreciation for the political strength of Hillary Clinton. She's extremely formidable, the clear front-runner, and has loads of structural assets. Her job is much easier than any of the other candidates: while Obama and Edwards have to perform significantly better than Clinton to overtake her, all she has to do is perform approximately even with them, and the nomination will be hers.

It will be very difficult to stop her.

Posted by: Korha | Jun 4, 2007 11:49:36 AM

Has Richardson received positive reviews for any of his TV appearances?

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jun 4, 2007 12:08:06 PM

John Edwards did himself a world of good by the clarifying differences between himself and Clinton and Obama. This will help him the most in Iowa and NH. Hillary used Liebermanisms("no one wants to end the war more than I do") through out the entire debate. She says, "I will end the war when I am President". Yet, no specifics are provided. I will acknowledge that she did great if we accept she provided no new substance. If this is the case, I am moderately shocked, since I thought we have had enough of the Bush style approach to politics.

Posted by: jncam | Jun 4, 2007 12:41:37 PM

This is the only write-up about the debate where I agree with every single point made. Good post!

Posted by: ari | Jun 4, 2007 12:59:27 PM

Final Petey Ratings:

Clinton - Exceeded expectation in multiple ways.
Obama - Didn't hurt himself.
Edwards - If you don't understand why he won this one, you don't understand the rules of the game we're currently playing.

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Richardson - Hurt himself.
Dodd - Didn't hurt himself.
Biden - Interesting. Is it a fluke, or is he really going to run in the Joe Lieberman '04 slot? If not, hurt himself.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 4, 2007 1:04:29 PM

"my sense was that far more of (Edwards) blows fell short or flew wide"

The blows were intended to earn free media today, rather than to win over the live audience.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 4, 2007 1:06:39 PM

Has Richardson received positive reviews for any of his TV appearances?

No. And the more times he acts that way on TV, the harder it will be to ever change people's perception of him.

Posted by: Stephen | Jun 4, 2007 1:13:13 PM

It doesn't surprise me that a lot of people think Edwards won

It doesn't surprise me that a lot of Edwards supporters think so. Making it "interesting" isn't the same as winning, though. If the attacks don't work, or if they actually rebound against Edwards (as the attack on Obama on Iraq did), that might not help and may hurt in coming days as the "highlights" of the debate get replayed in the media over and over. I suppose the Edwards campaign feels they need to adopt a higher-risk strategy.

What has surprised me is how many people are saying they didn't hate Clinton. Unusual for netsroots types.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 4, 2007 1:19:22 PM

I don't think anyone won, so defaults to HRC. The idea that she blew away however is well- bizzare.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 4, 2007 1:22:46 PM

re Edwards- he's gotten free media- I've been seeing it on local NY and other places so he did get this.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 4, 2007 1:23:47 PM

I think one has to look at the audience each candidate was pitching to. For Edwards it was early state activists, who are still hungry for Democrat that will stand up for their values, civil liberties and against Iraq. He clearly delivered for that audience, as he came across as the most forceful.

Hillary was pitching to her leaners saying, litterally, no real differences here, move along. Obama was posing as Presidential, probably with the national press in mind.

So each of them seemed to reach their audience, the question is who was pitching to the right one, and will it make any difference.

Richardson, btw, was pitching to his fellow talking point automatons.

Posted by: AJ | Jun 4, 2007 1:30:00 PM

"Richardson, btw, was pitching to his fellow talking point automatons."

Yglesias had a misguided post up wondering what the usefulness of these debates were. And here you can see the precise utility they serve. Without the debates, we wouldn't know Bill Richardson was from the planet Zoltar. He looks good on paper, y'know.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 4, 2007 1:37:17 PM

Even more visceral than Ezra's or John Judis's reaction to the Edwards performance, check out Dana Goldstein's post at TAPPED:

His choice to come out swinging on the Iraq supplemental when he actually agreed with Obama and Clinton's votes appeared quibbling and amateurish, and for me, at least, was uncomfortable to watch.

The wonky liberal punditry hates demagoguery. It literally makes them squirm.

But they don't understand the game being played.

(And they don't understand that the real audience for these events isn't watching it live.)

Dana, John, and Ezra's reaction to Edwards' performance is actually an echo to the 'Beltway Dems hate Edwards' story of recent weeks. Edwards doesn't do the 'wink, wink, I'm savvy like you' thing that Dem Presidential candidates normally do.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 4, 2007 2:25:32 PM

"Edwards doesn't do the 'wink, wink, I'm savvy like you' thing that Dem Presidential candidates normally do."

LOL! Let's not carried away here Petey. People don't change that much in a couple years, and Edwards is exactly the same guy he was in 2003, for better or worse--still running for President. The real difference is that between then and now, of course, is the structural dynamics of the race. If Edwards is a "fiery substantive left-wing progressive man of the people" now, then it's because it's politically smart and expedient for him to be cultivating that image. I doubt very much that it is anything more than that.

Posted by: Korha | Jun 4, 2007 2:45:17 PM

Nothing brings out honesty like losing - ask Gore. Or don't you believe his transformation after losing either. And Petey is right- Edwards audience was reached with this. Judging by what I often see as who the audience is here- I can also see why he says that Ezra and other wonks have a problem with passion. I am not sure Edwards had much less night. His wife was more passionate. But, I do see why this site, and the wonkites have a problem with a non wonkite approach to politics. In a way, it invalidates their approach as not being the best way to get things done.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 4, 2007 3:03:11 PM

"Edwards is exactly the same guy he was in 2003, for better or worse--still running for President. "

There was a definite vibe of that in 2004. He left a whole lot of folks inside the Beltway cold back then too.

What I'm getting at is that in both in the '04 and '08 races there is certain level of sincerity and lack of detachment to the Edwards campaign. There's normally a certain level of "I'm a wonk like you, but I can give speeches" vibe to Dem Presidential contenders - think of folks like Kerry and Gore in recent years - that Edwards doesn't transmit.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 4, 2007 3:08:09 PM

I went into this debate leaning heavily for Edwards-now I'm not as sure. What I want to see in a debate is someone who answers the damn question directly and then makes their wider point. And if the question is stupid, to say it is and not try to say some prepared talking point that doesn't address what is being asked. That is why Hillary looked good, not because of what she said but because she made you feel that she listened and gave a sensible reason for her position. (This is not what Bush does so I don't think she was at all Bush like.) Dodd, Biden and Obama also answered the question, though Obama seemed to be reasoning through his answers on the spot while the others appeared to have thought about those issues a lot beforehand. Edwards went off on an attack first and then answered the question-that was what didn't work for me. And Richardson was all talking points no matter what the question was. So many people use that tactic and all the TV pundits seem to think that pushing your talking points is what you want, but I think you come across as insincere.

Posted by: Sharron | Jun 4, 2007 3:54:37 PM

Edwards is in a very difficult position, because he has to fight the "blurring" by Clinton and Obama, but particularly Clinton. And so, sometimes he ends up having to draw contrasts over small—to us—differences. But I think we're just kidding ourselves if we believe there's no difference between HRC and Obama/Edwards on Iraq.

I couldn't bring myself to watch the debate after the first minutes of hysteria about terrorism. But from the transcript it did look informative after that, at least until the "what would be your first priority in the first 100 days" question.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jun 4, 2007 3:56:08 PM

"Edwards is in a very difficult position, because he has to fight the "blurring" by Clinton and Obama, but particularly Clinton. And so, sometimes he ends up having to draw contrasts over small—to us—differences. But I think we're just kidding ourselves if we believe there's no difference between HRC and Obama/Edwards on Iraq."

Bingo.

Folks with knowledge of Inside Capitol Hill Baseball didn't like the Edwards attack, because it was on thin literal grounds. But it was on very strong metaphorical grounds, and thus it plays in the larger arena.

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"I couldn't bring myself to watch the debate after the first minutes of hysteria about terrorism."

Dude. You gotta watch this stuff. You really ought to DVR it and watch it twice. This is one of the main places where politics takes place. And the transcript is never the event.

Lefties have to get over their aversion to the teevee. Nicholas didn't watch. Kevin Drum didn't watch. Yglesias watched only reluctantly. Can you imagine GOP pundits not being into a GOP teevee debate?

Posted by: Petey | Jun 4, 2007 4:17:17 PM

"But, I do see why this site, and the wonkites have a problem with a non wonkite approach to politics. In a way, it invalidates their approach as not being the best way to get things done."

Damn good point. Its human nature that most people define "leadership qualities" by those traits they think they themselves possess-- whether its money, family background, atheletic ability, education, etc.

Naturally wonks think the wonkish candidates are the best possible leaders. And then they're astonished when the Republicans nominate candidates who can't put two sentences together and yet still win elections.

Posted by: beowulf | Jun 4, 2007 4:31:08 PM

As has been pointed out several times, attacks work if they work, not just because you attack. What I've seen replayed so far are the attacks and the counters, which mostly make Edwards look bad, not good. It may be that attacking was a good idea, but attacking with poor material may not have been.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 4, 2007 4:32:51 PM

I think we're just kidding ourselves if we believe there's no difference between HRC and Obama/Edwards on Iraq.

What difference would that be?

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 4, 2007 4:35:37 PM

Petey: I'm sorry, I just can't take the hysteria. The breathless panicking that we have to support Bushism because there hasn't been an attack on US soil in the past six years (there have basically been two foreign terrorist events on US soil since the 80s) and some crazy guys in New Jersey hate American and had some crazy plot to blow up jet fuel tanks that they must have cooked up after watching a summer blockbuster and couldn't fund was just too much.

I know that the transcript is not the event, which is why I have a hard time juding winners and losers. But it's on the Tivo and I will watch it at some point.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jun 4, 2007 4:41:47 PM

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