In potentially the final Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both candidates stayed on message and executed their gameplans, despite the best attempts of NBC newsmen Brian Williams and Tim Russert. While Obama looked to remain presidential and above the fray, Clinton sought to force her opponent into a mistake that might turn the race around. And she almost got it.
In an otherwise newsless debate, Barack Obama nearly walked into a mine field when he was asked if he accepted the support he received earlier this week from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan (to be accurate, Farrakhan did not endorse Obama, but did offer effusive praise). While Obama denounced the past anti-Semitic rhetoric of Farrakhan, he also appeared, dangerously, to sidestep the issue of rejecting his support.
“You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments,” Obama said. “I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible. I did not solicit this support. He expressed pride in an African-American who seems to be bringing the country together. I obviously can’t censor him, but it is not support that I sought. And we’re not doing anything, I assure you, formally or informally, with Minister Farrakhan.”
When pressed by Tim Russert for a stronger position, who asked if he would not only denounce but also reject Farrakhan’s support, Obama continued to hedge.
“Well, Tim, you know, I can’t say to somebody that he can’t say that he thinks I’m a good guy,” Obama said. “You know, I– you know, I– I have been very clear in my denunciations of him and his past statements, and I think that indicates to the American people what my stance is on those comments.”
Clinton wasted no time pointing out the danger posed by Obama waffling on the issue, noting that during her Senate race in New York she had strongly rejected the support of a group with a similar history of anti-Semitic statements, despite the potential political cost. “There’s a difference between denouncing and rejecting,” Clinton said.
At that point, whether he realized it or not– and I believe he did– Obama was in a world of trouble. If he had continued to parse the difference between denouncing and rejecting, it would have appeared as though his disapproval of Farrakhan was perhaps slightly political, rather than completely authentic. And from now until March 4– and certainly beyond– every other question posed to Obama would be about just how strongly he denounced Louis Farrakhan and why he hadn’t wholeheartedly rejected the minister’s support. For a black candidate, that’s a dangerous, if not disasterous position to be in. It was potentially the gaffe, the game-changer that the Clinton campaign had been impatiently waiting for (and actively trying to provoke) since February 5.
But in an incredibly skillful turn, Obama turned the issue into one of semantics, arguing that his denunciation of Farrakhan did implicitly amount to a rejection of support.
“Tim, I have to say I don’t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting,” Obama said. “But if the word ‘reject’ Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word ‘denounce,’ then I’m happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.”
The Cleveland State University audience laughed, and the moderators moved on. But it was a moment that, had it been handled slightly differently, could have easily sent Obama’s campaign off the rails– perhaps not enough to cost him the Democratic nomination, but enough to hamper his currently advantageous position in the general election.
1. Barack Obama – Once again, Obama looked consistently more even-tempered and presidential than Hillary Clinton. While Clinton was focused on pointing out perceived inconsistencies in her opponent, sometimes to the point of appearing argumentative, Obama was focused on showing just how difficult it is to rattle him.
He wisely took the Drudge photo issue off the table immediately, saying that he took Clinton at her word that her campaign wasn’t involved. When the moderators played a clip of Clinton criticizing Obama in a harshly mocking tone, Obama responded that it showed she had a good sense of humor and deserved points for delivery. He also went out of his way near the end to praise Clinton’s campaign and say how honored he was to be onstage with her, echoing Clinton’s conciliatory gesture in the last debate.
On the issues, Obama was– as he has been in these one-on-one debates– typically strong. He skillfully defended his campaign’s attacks on Clinton’s health care plan, continued to emphasize her Iraq War authorization vote, and showed exactly why the National Journal ranked him as the most liberal member of the Senate (and more importantly, why the ranking was somewhat baseless).
With a week to go before the March 4 primaries, Obama’s goal was merely to stay away from controversy and run out the clock. And avoiding a near-disaster on the Farrakhan issue, he did just that.
2. Hillary Clinton - Clinton’s strategy in these final debates has been less focused on making the case for her own candidacy and more on making the case against Barack Obama’s. Her assumption is that voters once overwhelmingly supported her and are now moving to him, and if she merely convinces these voters that Obama is not a suitable option, they will come back. But I believe this is a mistake.
The overwhelming support that Clinton had earlier in this campaign was not because she had sold the majority of voters on her candidacy, it was because she was the default choice. Of the up to 50% of voters who supported Clinton earlier in the campaign, my unscientific guess is that at least half of them were undecided in the traditional sense. Clinton’s continuing mistake has been in assuming that she ever had those voters to begin with, and thus believing she doesn’t need to sell her own candidacy. It’s like walking into a jewelry store where the salesman’s entire pitch is why you shouldn’t buy from the guy across the hall. Unless you went into that store already convinced that it was the place for you, you’ll be unlikely to make a purchase there. (And you might just go across the hall to hear the other guy’s pitch.)
We saw that misguided focus again last night, as a defensive and sometimes belligerent Clinton went after Obama on health care, campaign tactics, and foreign policy. The level of her frustration was never clearer than at the beginning of the debate, when she cited a Saturday Night Live skit to prove a point about the media’s unfair treatment of her candidacy. Because apparently not only is NBC “the most trusted name in news,” but so is its entertainment division.
But even in the context of negativity, Clinton managed to make a number of strong points on the issues. She compared a voluntary health care system to voluntary Social Security, she smartly pointed out the lack of differences between Obama’s Iraq War voting record and her own, and she skillfully called on an anecdote from her 2000 Senate race to nearly ensnare Obama on the Farrakhan issue.
On her Iraq War authorization vote, Clinton seemed to take her regret one step further, saying unequivocally that she “would not have voted that way again,” leaving off the usual qualifier of “If I knew then what I know now…” The fact that she is still in the process of moving in the direction of an apology shows that she probably should have apologized at the beginning of the campaign and taken a year’s worth of equivocating off the table.
Clinton also made the kind of minor foreign policy gaffe she’s been trying to catch Obama in, when she stumbled badly over the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s successor Dimitry Medvedev. After a few quick attempts, she finally blurted it out and added, ”Whatever.” No one doubts Clinton’s grasp of foreign policy, but it’s a moment that, had it come from Obama, would have been highlighted endlessly by the Clinton campaign over the next seven days.
Overall, it was another missed opportunity for Clinton. At this point in the race, with her numbers sliding just as rapidly in Ohio and Texas as they are nationally and with superdelegates defecting daily, the only thing that can rescue her candidacy is a game-changing mistake by her opponent. And she nearly got it midway through. But Barack Obama, as he’s done throughout this campaign, managed to walk through another potential mine field and emerge unscathed.