The big winner of tonight’s Los Angeles debate was the Democratic Party. Overall, a substantive and appropriately cordial debate, which benefited both candidates. Barack Obama’s graciousness throughout put a damper on ”The Snub” from earlier in the week, and he wisely avoided any “You’re likeable enough” moments as well. He even went so far as to hold Hillary Clinton’s chair for her as she stood at the end of the debate. Clinton was also on her best behavior, as she no doubt wanted to avoid the kind of backlash her negative campaign tactics and harsh tone unleashed in South Carolina. For the second night in a row, I watched the debate through CNN’s online real-time tracker, which gauges audience reaction– positive or negative– with a graph from 1 to 100. Both Clinton and Obama’s favorability ratings hovered in the 60′s, and both of their numbers spiked wildly anytime they criticized George Bush. Early on, Clinton’s numbers were a solid 10 to 15 points higher than Obama’s, but by the end of the debate, reactions to his answers were polling slightly higher than hers.
Both opening statements set the tone for the debate and gave the most substantive contrast of the night between the candidates. Obama opened, wisely, by saluting John Edwards (who will likely endorse a candidate this weekend, if he does at all), and also made a gracious gesture to Clinton by stating that they were friends before this campaign and they’ll be friends after. He also did well framing the choice of the election as not between different interest groups or ideologies, but between the past and the future. Clinton opened by listing all the problems the next president would face on the first day, an emphasis of her argument that she is ready on Day One and her persona as a problem solver. The contrast between the two statements echoed the contrast in the entire race: Obama as a Kennedyesque “reach for the moon” leader versus Clinton as a practical “let’s be realistic here” policy wonk. It’s not hard to guess which approach played better in Hollywood.
1. Barack Obama – This may have been Obama’s strongest debate of the campaign. He was gracious, he was focused, and most importantly, he looked presidential. For the first hour, he somehow managed to out-policy Clinton. His defense of his health care plan and its lack of adult mandates was as clear and sensible as its ever been, and he cleverly invoked recent endorser Ted Kennedy and his years of experience on the issue as a way to bolster his own relative lack of Washington experience. Promising to put the health care proceedings on C-SPAN was a stroke of genius, and a startling contrast to the secretive nature of both the Bush administration and the 1993 Clinton health care effort.
Obama, again wisely, linked his efforts to curb special interests with the efforts of John Edwards. Also gave strong answers on questions regarding hypothetical debates with Republican candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney. On a question about the Bush tax cuts, Obama noted that McCain initially voted against them twice, until at some point “the Straight Talk Express lost its wheels.” His shot against Mitt Romney’s business background was just as effective, quipping that based on Romney’s presidential campaign and the countless millions of personal money invested in it, he wasn’t getting a great return on his investment. He deftly pivoted a question on immigration reform that somehow included African-Americans by saying that immigration isn’t an African-American problem, it’s an American problem. Unlike the Republican debate, the Iraq War played a larger role than the economy, and whenever that’s the case it benefits Obama. He sat quietly, throwing in a well-timed shot every now and then, as Clinton spent the final 15 minutes squirming around the issue of her Iraq War vote. Overall, a strong debate for Obama that will do nothing to derail his momentum heading into next week’s Super Tuesday primary.
2. Hillary Clinton – Also a typically strong debate for Clinton, but as fast as Obama is closing in the national polls, she needed more than a strong performance to stop his rise, she needed a game-changer. She also needed to give Edwards supporters– who look to be moving overwhelming towards Obama in the latest polls– a reason to choose her instead, and she missed that opportunity as well. Early on, she seemed either unfocused or handcuffed by a kinder, gentler campaign strategy, as she passed on a chance to attack the lack of mandates in Obama’s health care plan (though CNN’s Wolf Blitzer dutifully picked up the slack). But she did very well personalizing the issue, saying it’s a “passionate cause” of hers that she’s been pushing for decades. When it looked like she would get outflanked on immigration, she got in a great shot at Obama, noting that she was working on the issue in 2004 before he had joined the Senate. Like Obama, she cleverly took on Romney’s business experience with a line about how we already tried the CEO president with George Bush. Also of note, anytime Clinton criticized George Bush, her favorability ratings went off the charts, even moreso than when Obama did the same.
The big problem for Clinton in this debate was the moderators’ surprising decision to revisit her Iraq War vote– even renewing the question of whether she should apologize– that seemed to catch her off guard. It was almost as if she assumed that she had so skillfully buried the issue last fall that she’d never have to deal with it again. But with 15 minutes left in the debate, there the issue was again, and she really got stuck in the weeds. Her explanation for why a resolution titled “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq” wasn’t a vote for war was tortured and uncomfortable. And when Blitzer asked if her trust in the word of the Bush administration was “naive,” all she could manage was, “Nice try, Wolf.” If this were a debate in the summer of 2007, it would have been a win for Clinton– no big news was made, no dynamics were changed. But of course the dynamics last summer were that she was 20 points ahead. Now that Obama is within the margin of error nationally and rising, a no-news debate isn’t good news for Clinton.