Thursday, April 26, 2007

South Cackalacki Debate

Don't know if you watched the Democratic presidential debate from South Carolina, but I did, and I'll get kicked out of the blogger union if I don't pass on some impressions.

The format was unusual, with lots of questions demanding (unsuccessfully) short answers, with lots of jumping around on topics, and virtually no candidate interaction, other than that randomly forced by the questions. The two candidates that got occasionally annoying in defying the rules and talking too long were Bill Richardson and (this year's ultimate protest candidate) Mike Gravel.

And speaking of questions, they were occasionally framed and followed-up in ways that betrayed even the "gotcha" instincts of debate moderators. Joe Biden got a question on the Supreme Court's decision on the congressional "Partial-Birth Abortion" ban that didn't mention he voted for the ban in the Senate. Bill Richardson offered Whizzer White as a model for the nominees he'd put on the Supreme Court, and nobody noted that (aside from White's status as something less than a constitutional giant) the Whizzer was a dissenter in the original abortion rights decision, Roe v. Wade. And John Edwards was asked about his attitude towards hedge funds (a subject that most viewers probably knew little or nothing about) without any reference to his own employment by a hedge fund between his presidential runs.

The post-debate punditry on the sponsoring network, MSNBC, seemed to endorse the obvious impression that nobody really won or lost, but also suggested that Hillary Clinton did the best job of meeting her goals. She was calm, reasonable, relatively responsive, and occasionally self-deprecating. And on a question that will probably be replayed a lot tomorrow, involving how they'd react to a second 9/11 where al Qaeda's responsibility was clear, she used the muscle verbs "retaliate" and "destroy," satisfying those who somehow think female candidates aren't credible on the use of force (Richardson actually preceded her in immediately mentioning the use of force as a response, while Obama conspicuously omitted it).

Obama had some of the most interesting moments. He initially flubbed a "gotcha" question about America's "three top allies," and didn't mention Israel, but nicely handled the follow-up. He was more specific about health care than in past debates. And he did a solid job of answering questions about his position on Iraq.

Edwards was subdued and wonky (I personally consider the latter a compliment). He gamely dealt with the inevitable and impossible questions about his expensive haircut. Casual watchers might have been struck by his answer to the question on Iraq, and his implicit challenge to Hillary, but he used almost exactly the same language as in past debates, so pundits and activists probably weren't impressed.

Biden had his classic sound-bite moment, answering a question about his ability to exercise verbal discipline with one word, "Yes." Dodd went with his counter-intuitive but what-the-hell pitch about his experience. And Dennis Kucinich, partly thanks to losing his protest role to Mike Gravel, was more relaxed and reasonable sounding than I've ever heard him, both in the debate and in the post-debate interview.

A quick review of the reaction in the progressive blogosphere shows a subdued take on the event. At DailyKos, a reader poll about "who won" shows (as of this moment) Edwards at 20%, Obama at 17%, Clinton at 11%, Gravel at 9%, Richardson at 6%, and the rest scattered, with 11% saying "nobody." The main outliers here are HRC's double-digit showing (she inevitably finishes at around 3%, well below Denny the K., in assessments of actual support), and Richardson's pallid performance. I suspect the latter may have reflected the pub the debate gave to Richardson's NRA support, and his reluctance to call for Alberto Gonzales' resignation.

So the debate probably moved few votes, but may slightly shift the future landscape. And I hope the formatters of future debates noticed what didn't work tonight, and try to elicit longer, more substantive, and more interactive answers next time the donkeys gather.

UPDATE 1: Richardson's shout-out to the ghost of Byron White got noticed elsewhere. Scott Lemieux at TAPPED jumped on it before I did. And my buddy Armando at Talk Left went right out and said it disqualified Big Bill from the nomination. If this sort of buzz escalates, we'll probably see some statement from Richardson's campaign explaining where their candidate was going with that, before Brian Williamson told him to name someone actually still living. Maybe it was a Western Thing, since the Whizzer was from Colorado. But then William O. Douglas, a much safer liberal role model, was from Washington State.

UPDATE 2: Matt Yglesias picked up on my reference to the question Obama got about our "three most important allies." So naturally, I got kicked around some in Matt's comment thread, based on the apparent belief that I was lecturing Obama about Israel's value to the U.S.
Actually, all I was doing was pointing to the silly "gotcha" by Williamson, who was clearly hoping Obama would forget to mention Israel (a bad idea in Democratic politics), as evidenced by his immediate follow-up with an Obama quote about the suffering of the Palestinians. Obama turned that around by replying that he was talking about the folly of the Palestinian leadership, and then said the appropriate things about Israel as a U.S. ally.

For the record, like Matt, I think this was a ridiculous question. Ranking allies--or, as reflected in yet another dumb question posed to Biden--enemies, is not something any potential president ought to be doing in public.
-- Posted at 10:14 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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