11/01/2007

Pennsylvania Debate Analysis (D)

The Democratic presidential candidates mixed it up last night in Philadelphia at what was their most contentious debate thus far. One of the many storylines going into the debate was whether anybody could stop the Clinton steamroller. Coming out of the debate, the storyline is that Clinton finally took one on the chin and now looks vulnerable. She committed an unforced error that provided the weapon all the candidates can use to take her down.

About Mike Gravel:

The debate lasted two hours and involved all the candidates except for Mike Gravel. Gravel was not missed, as the flow of the debate seemed a bit less disjointed. In the previous debates, whenever Gravel spoke, I got the sense that listeners would roll their eyes and attempt to tune him out. Because he often said something awkward or outlandish (such as his assertion that he didn't need to repay his credit card debt), the audience would laugh or shake their heads in disbelief. That would detract from the tone of the discussion. There were no such moments in last night's debate, which was appropriate given the fact that the Iowa caucuses are in just two months. Future debate organizers should consider following NBC/MSNBC's lead by being a bit more selective with who they invite to participate.

About the moderators:

Regarding the moderators and the debate format, I was a bit disappointed by Brian Williams' and Tim Russert's performance. While I highly respect them as journalists and pundits, I believe they demonstrated a lack of discipline and exhibited poor judgment in the following regards:

1. The appropriateness of the questions. At the end of the debate, Dennis Kucinich received a question asking him if he had seen a UFO. Even though the debate had essentially entered garbage time (there likely wasn't enough time for the candidates to engage each other over another substantial policy difference), I thought this question made a mockery of Kucinich, his platform, and his campaign. Kucinich's performance overall was quite steady and forceful, but instead of being remembered for his challenges for Democrats to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney for launching what he calls an illegal war, he will be remembered as the loony liberal wacko who saw a UFO. How he responded to this question was not Kucinich's fault, but I can't help but wonder if the moderators asked him that question in an attempt to broadside him and make his candidacy seem less credible. This, in turn, could be used to serve as a rationale for excluding him from future debates. If that's the case, I think this is a tacky and unprofessional way to go about doing so. (It is worth noting that the moderator then asked Barack Obama the same question, but he wisely avoided it.) Maybe this question was benign, but I think a more appropriate garbage question would have been to ask each candidate down the line what they would dress up as for Halloween. Anyway, in our current political culture of soundbytes and character assassinations, anytime a politician is caught off message or in an awkward conversation, that can be fatal. Brad Warthen over at The State wrote an excellent post about these out-of-bounds questions.

2. The balancing of the questions. Excluding Kucinich's UFO question, Hillary Clinton received as many questions as Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden combined. Yes, Clinton is the candidate sitting at the top of the polls, but if you want to have a debate that allows for the maximum exchange of policy differences, I believe it would be more effective to involve as many candidates as possible.

3. How they handled their responsibilities as moderators. The moderators did an appalling job of dealing with candidates who either didn't answer their questions or talked over their allotted time. There was little enforcement of the rules when the candidates filibustered, especially during the so-called "lightning round." For some reason, politicians are not capable of condensing their answers to 30 seconds, although Joe Biden tried his best to do so. What's the point of having a 30-second rule if there is no penalty for speaking for 2 minutes? When the candidates ignored the moderators' prompts to wrap up their responses, that undercut the moderators' authority.

Also, why did the moderators use the "lightning round" to ask questions about education policy? How can issues as complicated as school funding and No Child Left Behind adequately be addressed in 30 seconds? That's how long it takes for most politicians just to get through their talking points!

About the candidates:

Hillary Clinton: Clinton had a scarlet X on her back throughout the debate, as she was the target of most of the attacks and most of the moderators' questions. For the first 75% of the debate, she stuck to her playbook of keeping her responses general, her rivals unnamed, and her focus on the failings of President Bush and the Republicans. She clearly had done her debate homework, as she came up with some good responses to prickly questions. In response to questions about her positions being similar to those of Republicans, she said the Republicans think she's a liberal based on how much they attack her. That was a clever way to defuse that question because it's difficult to refute.

She also hit Obama hard by saying "change is just a word if you don't have the experience to make change happen." (Can you imagine Obama delivering a line like this?) Of course, this set her up for an attack by Obama later on when the discussion switched to her issue of "experience." (More on that later.)

Clinton's main threat during the debate wasn't Obama, however. It was John Edwards. Edwards kept hammering home the idea that Clinton didn't take a clear stand on major issues and was evasive in her responses. In other words, she talks a lot, but only says a little. As he kept bringing this up, Clinton offered more and more evidence that supported Edwards' assertions. She offered vague and squirrelly responses on her Iran vote ("I'm not in favor of a rush to war. I'm not in favor of doing nothing."), troop levels in Iraq ("We'd bring out combat troops, but not troops fighting Al Qaeda."), Social Security ([paraphrased quote] "Hyping up the Social Security threat is a Republican talking point, but to address Social Security, we must first achieve fiscal responsibility."), and taxes ("I want to get to a fair and progressive tax system, but I won't get committed to a specific approach."). The moderators tried to pin her down, but she remained vague and noncommittal.

This strategy seemed to serve her well until near the end of the debate when "The Moment" happened. Moderator Tim Russert asked Clinton if she supported New York Governor Elliot Spitzer's proposal to offer driver's licenses to illegal aliens in their state. Clinton gave a thoughtful, but tortured answer about how "undocumented workers" should "come out of the shadows" and how "comprehensive immigration reform" was necessary, but never quite said whether she supported his policy. Russert pressed her on this, but she offered the same vague response. Chris Dodd then jumped in and said he thought driver's licenses were a "privilege" that should not be extended to illegal aliens. The conciseness of his response contrasted greatly with Clinton's longwinded, convoluted expressions of support for the goals of Gov. Spitzer's policy without actually endorsing it. John Edwards and Barack Obama soon jumped in and suddenly Clinton looked vulnerable and flustered.

She tried to say this was an example of "gotcha" politics, but the problem with this is that illegal immigration is a much more concrete issue than tax policy or access to records in one's presidential archives. The "I don't do hypotheticals" line won't work either because this is the type of issue that everyone has an opinion on and comes in contact with regularly. While the issue is complicated, it is also an issue on which voters expect a level of clarity from their elected officials. She ultimately proved John Edwards' attacks for him and introduced a new storyline into the race: her evasiveness.

Clinton put herself into a box because she will have to either go against the Democratic governor of the state she represents in the Senate, endure a steady stream of brutal interviews trying to flesh out her views on this issue, or risk angering a political constituency (be they immigrants, Latinos, or immigration hardliners) by taking a stand one way or the other. Another risk for Clinton is that her responses to other questions in the future will receive greater scrutiny. She will need to find a way to be more forthcoming because John Edwards and the other candidates will attempt to drive a bus through this hole in her armor.

John Edwards: No candidate was more aggressive at last night's debate than John Edwards. His poll numbers in must-win Iowa have been on a steady downward trend over the past few weeks, so he had to do something to claw his way back into the race. He repeated several themes: 1) that Hillary Clinton represented the status quo, 2) that Hillary Clinton is not leveling with the American people, and 3) Hillary Clinton is not capable of bringing the change she is promising because she represents exactly why this change is needed in the first place.

The second point is the most damaging. He kept using the word "doubletalk" and applied it to her Iran vote when she said that was a vote for "vigorous diplomacy." In response to Clinton saying that she wanted to put "pressure" on President Bush when it came to a possible war with Iran, Edwards questioned how she could put "pressure" on him if she supported the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. "If you give Bush an inch, he'll take a mile. This resolution enables Bush to do whatever he wants to do and keep using the same lies that he used in Iraq. Some of us have learned the hard way."

It was unclear how effective Edwards' attacks on Clinton's credibility and conviction were until she threw him the golden nugget that was her painful tap dance around the driver's license question.

Win or lose, this is the line that will seal Edwards' fate: "I think our responsibility is to be in tell the truth mode, not in primary mode or general election mode." That was a harsh zinger that was aimed right between Clinton's eyes. Pundits are saying that Edwards might be penalized by Iowa's voters for being too negative, but I'm not so sure. I believe going negative can be effective if your accusations are true and your opponents prove these accusations themselves. It's one thing for Edwards to incessantly say "Clinton doesn't answer questions." But when you can witness her doing just that for yourself, I believe the attack has considerably more resonance.

Barack Obama: Obama was more restrained than Edwards and did not play the role of attack dog as some had anticipated. This is not to say that he left his boxing gloves backstage. However, it is obvious that he is uncomfortable going on offense. The very first question of the debate went to Obama and asked him to elaborate on how he planned to be more aggressive towards Clinton. He balked at the question and turned in another meandering response about civility and cynicism while refusing to attack Clinton directly. For his supporters, this response was probably what they did not want to hear, especially at the start of the debate.

However, he became a bit looser as the debate progressed and he seemed to find his sea legs. When Clinton hedged on the question about releasing documents from Bill Clinton's archives relating to her work in his administration, he effectively used her "turn the page" line against her while questioning her experience by saying "[paraphrased quote] This is an example of not turning the page. We are in the midst of the highly secretive Bush Administration. How can you say you have experience when you're not open about letting people access the documents that show the experience you cite?" That was a good example of Obama showing his spine without showing his fangs.

However, for every time Obama went on offense, he also blurred the distinctions between himself and his main rival. Their responses to the question of taxes for higher income Americans and the breaking point for going to war with Iran were strikingly similar. While Obama did go on offense a bit more at this debate than at the previous ones, I believe he did not meet the high expectations that had been set for him. The media coverage of his campaign from here on out should be interesting to watch because the "Clinton vs. Obama" storyline may become "Obama vs. Edwards." Even though Obama would like to keep the focus on his rivalry with Clinton, having stories about his duels with Edwards is preferable to stories about Obama's fall from grace. Is Obama becoming the Fred Thompson of the Democrats? The hyped up candidate that never quite delivers? He is not out of the race yet by any means, but I sense a growing sense of impatience among his supporters, pundits, and the media.

In short, Obama basically played good cop to Edwards' bad cop when it came to attacking Clinton. But who will win out? Will Edwards' attacks be seen as courageous or nasty? Will Obama's attacks be seen as civil or weak? That will be the new "Obama vs. Edwards" storyline.

Bill Richardson: As qualified as Richardson is on paper, he is turning out to be a weak candidate on stage. Richardson's debate performance was not particularly spirited, nor did he have any memorable lines. He did try to stress his foreign policy credentials and the fact that he has actually achieved results in terms of dealing with dictators and negotiating with rogues, but were the voters listening? He also inexplicably defended Hillary Clinton during the debate because he felt the attacks on her were becoming too personal. Politicians often claim to "take the high road," but they normally do so when citing their own refusal to engage in personal attacks, not to stop their opponents from attacking each other. If your opponents are digging holes for themselves, why take away their shovels? This lends credence to the notion that Richardson is angling for a spot on a Clinton ticket or in a Clinton administration.

Richardson has two problems. The first problem is that he does not come across as credible on Iraq. While he doesn't have any war votes to atone for, there seems to be some level of disconnect because he is maintaining a liberal Democratic position on Iraq ("no residual forces") even though his legislative record as governor of New Mexico clearly demonstrates that he is a moderate (pro-gun rights, fiscal conservative, etc.). His Iraq policy makes him seem like the political equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a tutu. This policy just doesn't seem to match his true identity.

The second problem is that an unflattering caricature of him has congealed: Great candidate on paper, but underwhelming candidate on stage. I had written about overrated and underrated candidates back in August and cited a National Journal poll about this very subject. Richardson received 7% of the vote for the most overrated Democrat. The lone quote National Journal provided about Richardson from one of the poll respondents was "Big resume; big blowhard." Ouch. While I certainly don't think Richardson is a "blowhard," I can see how he may be "overrated." Most of his debate performances so far have been less than inspiring.

In last night's debate, Richardson kept reminding voters of his achievements when he was an ambassador and hostage negotiator. He even mentioned someone in the audience whom he said he had rescued from the Abu Ghraib prison. But as stellar as these accomplishments are, they didn't really resonate with the audience because itemizing these accomplishments ultimately trivializes them. Saying you negotiated with Rogue Thug A and Hot Spot B sounds similar to saying you wrote Bill X and Act Y. In other words, it sounds senatorial rather than inspiring. And now because of the vacant Senate seat in New Mexico that he could easily win, Richardson's presidential campaign is being questioned. He did not do anything to ease these doubts last night.

Joe Biden: Biden did not get a lot of chances to participate in the debate tonight, but he did make the most of the time he did receive. Biden's most impressive response was in response to a question about Iran. Biden methodically talked about the relationship between Iran and Pakistan and how Musharraf was sitting on a powder keg that could be exploited by rogue and terrorist elements, thus helping Iran achieve its nuclear ambitions far more quickly. The depth of this response shows that he would be a tremendously difficult candidate to brand as weak on foreign policy. Biden also got off one of the best lines of the night in a hit on Rudy Giuliani: "Rudy Giuliani is the most underqualified person to run for president since George W. Bush. His sentences only have three things: a noun, a verb, and 9-11." That was a clever line, although Giuliani fired back the next day by invoking the specter of his past plagiarism. ("I don't think Biden came up with that line by himself. You know he doesn't write his own stuff." Ouch.)

Biden was also aware of a gaffe he made at a recent forum in Iowa in which he appeared to blame poor school performance on the percentage of Black students in the school. Statements such as these cause Democrats to only offer tepid support for Biden's campaign. However, he did an excellent job of cleaning up his message on the issue of minorities and education and should have defused this controversy. In general, Biden was strong when he needed to be strong and funny when he needed to be funny. In light of new doubts that have been raised about Clinton, look for Biden to get a second look from Democrats who want an experienced candidate who doesn't enter the general election with a 50% unfavorability rating.

Chris Dodd: Dodd turned in his greatest debate performance by far. He turned in thoughtful responses to questions about education and the environment and gave the lone shoutout to Al Gore. He also launched effective veiled attacks on Barack Obama and John Edwards ("[paraphrased quote] We need a president who has exhibited good judgment and leadership at critical moments. Experience and proven results matter."), but also forcefully called Hillary Clinton's electability into question. The best thing of all about his attack on Clinton was that he was strong without being mean. Clinton's electability has long been the bugaboo that kept so many Democrats from enthusiastically supporting her. Her steady rise in the polls as of late has largely been a result of her persistence in allaying these fears. But Dodd turned back the clock and ripped the scab right off of this sore.

The most important moment of all for Dodd was his fiery exchange with Clinton over the driver's license question for illegal immigrants. When Dodd challenged her over the issue, that led to Obama and Edwards subsequently piling on, which ultimately led to today's news stories about how Clinton was finally bloodied. Not only did Dodd's opposition to granting driver's licenses to illegal aliens match public sentiment in general (most Americans regardless of political party oppose this), but whenever news outlets or YouTube users replay Clinton's stumble, Dodd will get free media time because he's the candidate who brought this entire brouhaha about. Dodd's stock value has gone up quite a bit since 48 hours ago.

Dennis Kucinich: Due to Mike Gravel's absence, Kucinich assumed the role of the gadfly candidate on stage. This is unfortunate, as he represents a very real wing of the Democratic Party. Kucinich's problem is that the perception has overtaken the platform. In other words, I get the sense that people think of Kucinich more as a kook than as an unabashedly liberal candidate. His strength at the debate was his repeated calls to impeach Bush and Cheney and his genuine anger at the weakness of his Democratic opponents and the Democratic congressional leadership. ("Democrats won't stand up to Wall Street, won't end the war, and won't stand up to for-profit insurance companies. What's the difference between Democrats and Republicans?") There is likely more than just a fringe group of Americans who feel the exact same way. Impeaching Bush and Cheney, getting rid of NAFTA, getting out of Iraq, and providing universal not-for-profit healthcare coverage certainly resonate with working class voters, base voters, antiwar voters, and the labor wing of the Democratic Party. And he has more ideological purity on Iraq than any other Democratic candidate. This is the Kucinich platform. But the Kucinich perception is that he is the short, goofy liberal with the big ears who has no shot at winning the nomination. The unfair question about UFOs at the end of the debate totally canceled out an otherwise strong performance because it made voters remember the Kucinich perception at the expense of the Kucinich platform.

Future debate organizers are going to have to do a bit of soul searching with Kucinich. His polling numbers are not better than the margin of error, but the same could be said of Chris Dodd. So if Kucinich were excluded from a future debate, he would have a legitimate gripe if Dodd was also not excluded. Of course, Dodd turned in a strong performance and likely gained some buzz. So why couldn't Kucinich do the same thing? Or is he "too liberal?" What does "too liberal" mean anyway? Far right candidates like Pat Buchanan and Tom Tancredo never generated such disrespect, so why the discrepancy? Basically, if they (the media) are going to invite him to future debates, they should treat him with the same amount of dignity and respect that they afford to the other candidates. Otherwise, it's a bit disingenuous to invite him and then set him up to look like a bozo.

In closing...

Clinton has a very real problem to worry about now.

Obama is on the verge of having the media and his supporters abandon him unless he benefits from Edwards' negativity.

Edwards employed the sword at this debate. The problem is that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. For now though, he should be feeling pretty good about what happened.

Richardson has become the biggest disappointment among all the candidates.

Biden is quietly gaining street cred with his consistently strong debate performances.

Dodd helped his campaign the most and may become the next buzz candidate. Illegal immigration is a hot issue and he may experience an uptick in support among independents in New Hampshire.

Kucinich was railroaded. Even voters who don't support him probably thought what the moderators did to him was in bad form.

And the debate format and moderating left room for improvement.

But most importantly, we now have a race again.

3 comment(s):

notverybright said...

Nice analysis. I can't disagree with any of it. I think Edwards' theme about the politically-calculated way that Clinton approaches everything needs to be ramped up. Obama and Edwards together could make that resonate.

Silence Dogood said...

Thank you for the astute analysis Mr. Palmer - like myself you are often long winded - but not always so much like my self your words are always well thought out and well worth read.

Mjames said...

Very good discussion.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.