Las Vegas Debate Analysis (D)

The Democratic debate in Las Vegas tonight was a generally disappointing affair. Only the top three candidates (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama) were allowed to participate in this debate, so one would assume that the candidates had many more opportunities to flesh out their policy details and be more specific about their platforms. Also, there were no Mike Gravels or Dennis Kuciniches on stage to distract the other candidates or interrupt the flow of the debate. In light of all this, this debate was a bit of a letdown because the three candidates did not really engage each other and the moderators' questions did not force them to speak in anything other than generalities.

One of the more interesting moments happened towards the beginning of the debate when a heckler said, "These are all race-based questions!" or something similar. Clearly, this man was frustrated with the focus of the questions at the start of the debate, which centered on the overheated rhetoric regarding race over the past few days. Both Obama and Clinton were clearly trying to bury the hatchet and move on, but the moderators belabored the issue by asking one too many questions about retracting statements, citing what went wrong, and whether racism sunk Obama in the privacy of voting booths in New Hampshire. While the heckler was out of line, he was definitely correct in identifying one of the agents that was complicit in advancing the race issue: the media.

John Edwards seemed out of his depth tonight when the questions centered on foreign policy. The moderator asked him what he would do about Kuwait and how foreign countries were investing so heavily in American companies, but he sidestepped the question and pivoted to a discussion about financial insecurity concerns among middle class voters.

Edwards also got caught flatfooted when the moderator reminded him of his previous support for the bankruptcy bill during President Bush's first term that made it more difficult for individuals to declare bankruptcy. When the moderator said that this bill threatened middle and lower class voters who were unable to pay their medical bills, Edwards was forced to admit he was wrong to support that bill. This was potentially damaging because it contradicted Edwards' rhetoric of fighting for the little guy.

Later, he was asked about nuclear energy and storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. Edwards sidestepped this question too, but Hillary Clinton reminded him, "But John, you did vote for Yucca Mountain twice and you did not answer the moderator's question." Again, Edwards had to acknowledge that he was wrong or that circumstances had changed since those votes.

Another weak moment came when the debate switched to illegal immigration. The moderator asked what was wrong with making English the official language of the United States. Edwards went into a long discussion about the need for immigration reform but never really answered the question. Neither Obama nor Clinton were asked about this, but should one of them make it to the general election, they will need to articulate a much more credible response because this is one of the few issues on which Republicans are on the side of public opinion.

In general, Edwards tried to make sure voters knew he was the candidate who would come down hard on lobbyists, special interests, and corporations that exploit their workers. He also made these arguments forcefully and with a great sense of authenticity. However, he came across as a one-dimensional candidate who was incapable of or uncomfortable with talking about anything other than the impact of corporate greed and an ailing economy on the middle class.

Hillary Clinton fared better than Edwards, but she had a problem with responding to questions directly. She also seemed to pander, as she commonly reminded the moderators that "this is a Black and Brown debate" and that it was "unfortunate" that "Black and Brown issues" were not being addressed. In light of all the recent controversy about playing the race card, these lamentations from Clinton may have seemed a bit insincere. Will the media pick up on this and wonder if Clinton was "trying to play the race card" again?

Clinton also was a bit evasive when confronted with direct questions or when asked to explain herself. If these debates are supposed to be about explaining one's views, why did Clinton say "I'm not going to characterize it," when asked to explain her statement before the New Hampshire primaries about how "our adversaries abroad are watching our elections closely and we have to remember that we are hiring a president who will be there when the chips are down?" Obama called Clinton out on these remarks by saying that was an example of politicians using the specter of terrorism to influence elections.

Clinton also did not directly answer the question about whether Bob Johnson, who made the recent veiled remarks about Obama's past drug use, will campaign with her in the future. This was not lost on voters who view her as calculating and conniving, especially when she said that sometimes one's political supporters are "exuberant and uncontrollable." This "uncontrollability" seems to be a pattern with Clinton's supporters.

George Bush was Clinton's main target tonight. It seemed as if she was reverting to her earlier strategy of ignoring her rivals because she was the inevitable nominee. I am not sure about the wisdom of this strategy, however, as Democratic voters already know that Bush is not their friend. So she was essentially preaching to the choir in that regard. Also, Clinton is no longer the inevitable nominee, so she probably should have challenged Obama a bit more.

To Clinton's credit, she did challenge Obama to join her in supporting her legislation about President Bush's responsibility to come before Congress when considering establishing permanent bases in Iraq. This was a shrewd move by Clinton because it would make her look like a leader if Obama accepted her challenge (and thus diminish Obama by making him look more like a follower), further blur the differences between the two candidates on Iraq (regardless of Clinton's initial vote to authorize the Iraq War), and make Obama look like he wasn't prepared to bury the hatchet and be the unity candidate if he rejected her offer.

In my estimation, Barack Obama probably won this debate, although nobody really shined tonight. To Obama's credit, he seemed the most comfortable and the most confident when answering questions, although he seemed to meander at times. Obama also did a good job of drawing distinctions without drawing blood, so he appeared firm and civil at the same time. He had one of the better responses of the night when he was asked to talk about Black males and why the education system was failing them. That response likely resonated with Black voters in South Carolina and maybe even piqued the ears of conservatives because Obama did not come across like a typical liberal Black politician who solely blamed the government for the plight of young Black Americans.

The big loser in this debate was the media. A lot of time was wasted asking questions that were more about making news and advancing media storylines than explaining policy:

"What is your greatest strength and weakness?"

"How did we get [to this sorry dialogue about race]?"

Strike two for the media: Obama was also shortchanged by the moderators when he was not allowed to ask his preferred question to one of the candidates because he wanted to respond to a point made by Edwards in the form of a question. A bit of moderator discretion would have made for a better debate, in my opinion.

The other losers tonight were Iowa and New Hampshire. How many voters were ripping out their hair when they listened to these candidates address issues of foreign policy by nibbling at the edges and speaking in generalities? I've mentioned this before, but I think the Democrats will regret that the three veteran candidates (Richardson, Dodd, and Biden) were winnowed from the field prematurely while three fairly similar and weaker candidates survived.

Overall, this debate lacked fireworks, memorable one-liners, a discussion of specifics, and a sense of reassuring competence regarding foreign policy. The three candidates seemed to change their positions on Iraq again (this time they talked about getting most of the troops out during their first year in office). Pakistan barely came up, and Edwards fumbled the question about Kuwait. People may talk about how this election is the Democrats' to lose, but based on the relatively uninspiring performances I witnessed tonight, I think the Republicans have a better chance of retaining the White House than the pundits think.

The new candidate Democrats should be worried about is Mitt Romney, who won the Michigan primary tonight. This victory places the onus on Mike Huckabee to win South Carolina this weekend. For all of Romney's flip-flops, he at least comes across as competent. Unfortunately for Democrats, Bush won't be on the ballot this fall, and Romney is wisely adopting the "change" mantle and coupling it with a focus on economic issues. I don't know if "a new kind of politics" or "fighting for change" or "fighting for the mill workers" can trump that because Romney is an outsider who won and successfully governed in a very blue state. So he could potentially match up quite well against any of the Democrats.