Post Debate Analysis

So last night at South Carolina State the democratic presidential primaries had their first real official kick off with the first debate, pitting the eight would be nominees against each other for ninety minutes with no commercial break. I did live blog the event, but due to technical problems with posting, the entire live blogging occured in the haloscan comments section to this post.

A quick word or two about this site and the debates. We will attempt to liveblog as many of the presidential debates as we possibly can, both Democrat and Republican. While initially my intent was to do this on the main page, I found using the comments section faster, easier, less sticky, and overall more convenient. As a result, all debates will from now on be liveblogged in comments. This is good for you, the readers, as well, as this means you are more than free to join us in liveblogging the events. In fact, we welcome it (unless you’re spamming us. Despite their frequent posts, I’m pretty sure the company selling butt plugs last night really wasn’t all that interested in the Democratic candidates).

With that out of the way, let’s talk about last night (and not in the awkward, gee I had a good time last night but I barely know you, and sure I’ll call you kinda way).

The scenario is pretty simple. You got your three top tier candidates; Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, and former Senator Edwards. Representing the second tier, you got Senator Biden, Senator Dodd, and Governor Richardson. Bringing up the rear were Congressman Kucinich, and former Senator Gravel.

Now in a debate like this, it is important to understand the expectations and burdens held by candidates in each of the tiers. In the top tier, you are talking about those who are most likely to attain the nomination, and their single biggest job is to not screw up. As we know a single gaffe can make or break a successful campaign, and these three candidates who are already running strong to the polls are just trying as hard as they can to keep that going. This is often done by being as reserved, on script, and cautious as is feasible without looking like you are actually doing so.

For the bottom tier candidates, the situation is effectively the opposite. Throw caution to the wind, get attention, make a breakthrough, and go for the gold. That is the name of the game here. In a way, for these lower level candidates even a gaffe would at least result in more press than they have already gotten, and may secretly be welcomed.

I think in a situation like this, the trickiest situation lies in the middle. The reasoning behind this is that they too can suffer widely from from a gaffe, ceding the tennable hold they have on the media and the public’s attention, but at the same time, they still need that extra shove to get their names squeezed in with the front runners. In this regard, they have maybe not the toughest job, but possibly the most complex job, mixing caution with controversy to create that perfect storm of buzz.

If we understand this dynamic, then last night’s debate is also easily understood. I’ve spent much of last night and today reading commentary after commentary on the debates, and what we see are patterns. Each of the top three candidates took their share of criticisms about being cautious and scripted, there was plenty of talk about over reaching on behalf of at east two of the three middle weights, and as for the basement dwellers… wow.

I think first it is important to look at the role that Kucinich and Gravel played in last night’s debate, and when doing so there is one thing that I think that most observers have to admit, and that is when it comes to candor and passion and standing out from the crowd, these two definitely stole the show. Whether it was the image of Kucinich holding up the constitution as he explained his motivation for shooting for a Dick Cheney impeachment, or it was Gravel shaking his hands urgently as he almost violently called out, “WHO ARE WE AFRAID OF?”, they challenged convention, and while their validity as presidential candidates was not helped much, by the end of the night, you knew what they were fighting for.

And at least in the case of Sen. Gravel, that he wasn’t fighting for enough. I found his performance last night dynamic and daring. Nearly every occasion in which he spoke he challenged his colleagues with wreckless abandon on foreign policy and hawkish tendencies. But Gravel’s problem was that the Iraqi war seemed to be the only thing that the former Senator wanted to talk about, completely and totally ignoring other questions, and jumping straight back into his anti war crucade. In this context, I’m forced to agree with talking heads of Air America fame Randi Rhodes and Rachael Maddow in that I think maybe Gravel’s real intention isn’t necessarily to win the Oval Office, per se, but just to keep the other candidates honest. The elder statesman keeping a watchful eye on his herd.

Dennis Kucinich, however, I think is making a serious bid on the presidency. Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t have a wealth of knowledge on a lot of the lower tier candidates, and to prepare for the debates I watched clips on each, and I remember specifically watching some footage of Kucinich and thinking to myself, “Really? For president? Are we sure about this Dennis?” Of course, first impressions don’t always come off.

Where Gravel came off as the somewhat psychotic long shot that he is, I was struck with how… gee… presidential Kucinich presented himself. Calm and reserved and deliberate, Dennis did well in expounding upon his ideas, showed himself to be exceptionally different from his colleagues, but at the same time not in an overtly disrespectful way. I also think it didn’t hurt him at all that he had the very volatile Gravel there to make him seem much more calm and sensible and, yes, mainstream.

Don’t get me wrong, though, this performance I think will impress some people, but not enough.

Though neither broke into a higher tier, you got to give Dennis and Mike credit, they definitely made the debates more fun.

Then you have your second tier candidates. I’m gonna say this right here and right now. Both Senator Dodd, and Governor Richardson fell flat. They didn’t perform poorly, exactly, but then remember that they aren’t top tier; their sole job is not to just avoid the gaffe. Both candidates were obviously scripted, sounding strong and practiced on questions that you know they were practiced on, and floundering pretty easily on questions they weren’t used to dealing with in their day to day roles as elected officials, or that they didn’t specifically bone up on. As a quick side note, Dodd I think turned me off when I heard him say “safe, legal and rare.” I’m a big fan of the doctrine, but when he mentioned it in context of the abortion part of the debate, it really felt as though he was just jacking the Clinton words in favor of him having his own opinion. Come on man, every other candidate that addressed the question at least found a way to reword the answer, you can too.

Joe Biden (or Joe B, as a friend of mine likes to call him) was a different story. If I were to pick a candidate who “won” I would pick Joe. Now let’s slow down for a second. I’m not saying he won on best overall performance, but I am saying that in regards to what he had to do as a middle tier candidate, he did very well. He didn’t commit a single gaffe, sounded great on all of his answers, was strong on a few, especially when it came to national defense, and I think the big ticket here is that anyone coming into the debate with no previous knowledge whatsoever would have to ask themselves why isn’t he considered a top tier as well. If nothing else, I think Joe looked the most confidant up on stage of the eight.

The second most confident looking candidate would have to be Hillary, which brings us to the heavyweights, the candidates with the most to lose. As would be expected, each candidate was cautious and scripted on just about every question that came their way. In this regard, I will cede that Hillary probably looked the strongest up there, but that comes as a double edged sword.

When Hillary gets worked up she has a tendency to come off as either combatitive, or even downright condescending, and last night wasn’t an exception. On the other hand, she is strong and impassioned. In the end, I think where Hillary wins is that she was the most consistent candidate on the stage. The other thing about Hillary was she did a great job showing her experience; she framed many of her answers with what she did in the past, and her policy answers were adequately detailed. On the negative, I think Hillary may have gone after Bush a little too much, and she seemed to failsafe to her stump speech pretty quickly throughout the night.

As for John Edwards, I think he has a couple of things going for him. One is his charisma. He’s very endearing, and I think he has that walk in low IQ that actually works well in presidential politics (the concept of walk in low IQ works kinda like this. You see a guy walk into a room and here for him talk for one minute and you think, this guy is pretty average, decent, cool dude to hang with. Let him talk for another five minutes, and you realize this guy is way the hell over your head). Policy wise, Edwards excelled in his health care plan explanations, and I think this was probably his strongest policy performance. On the other hand, if I were to look for a weakness, I would say that he is relying on that apology for voting for the war a little heavily, a tactic I still think is a little questionable in its wisdom.

And then there was Obama. Now before I say anything about Obama, let me preface it with this single thought. Obama came into this debate with probably the biggest handicap of high expectations. No matter what happens, what he says or does or what anyone else says or does, a damn large group of people out there think the man can walk on water and make water into wine. It’s one thing when you know you have big shoes to fill, it’s another thing completely when those big old shoes are your own.

All this said, I was a little disappointed with the messiah’s performance. He started off shaky, and while some questions he fielded rather well (despite failing to recognize Israel as one of our closest allies, his answer to the allies question was organic, ergonomic and well presented), overall the one impression I think one could take away is that he was out of his element. As it turns out, the quip about how Obama takes sixty seconds to clear his throat actually is kinda true.

But debates are not just overall performances. Far from it. They are individual moments; Dukakis total lack of passion when asked whether he would ask for the death penalty if someone brutally murdered his wife, Reagan asking America if they were better off than they were four years prior, Bush41 looking at his watch impatiently, etc. Indeed, an argument can easily be made for the idea that it is the moments in an election that can shape an election, not the overall performance.

So what were moments mattered?

Obviously the one that you will hear about the most, the one that so far has probably gotten the most ink was from Joe Biden. When asked if he could guarantee that the normally verbose Biden would not turn into a gaffe machine, quickly and crisply he answered, “Yes.”

Laughter erupted, and even Brian Williams was caught off guard, the look on his face saying “That’s it? You’re sure? Really?”

Edwards also took the spotlight in what was easily the most honest and most heartfelt moment of the debates. When asked about his moral inspiration he took eleven seconds to think about the question (yeah, you’re going read eleven seconds quite a bit in other analyses of the debate, so I might as well get it out of the way) before humbly talking about religion and family, and in this one instant, he upstaged Obama. Barak Obama who is supposed to be strong on being able to talk about his religion in the realm of politics could not have sounded as sincere as John Edwards when he said, “My Lord” in the beginning of his answer. A truly touching moment, and a reminder of why he can sometimes be such an attractive candidate (I’m reminded of the 2004 debates when he complimented Dick Cheney on his support and love for his daughter Mary Cheney which provided probably the most human moment in the entire campaign).

And who could possibly forget the image of Kucinich holding his pocket constitution as he made his case for the impeachment of Cheney?

But in a way, if you want my pick of the moment of the night, believe it or not I give it to Barak Obama. Barak who had been performing okay all night had his big moment at the end. As the debate was winding down, many of the candidates were either ignoring or perfunctorily answering questions to get back to the topic of National Security to show they were strong in said subject, with the exception of course of Gravel and Kucinich. This set the stage for both Gravel and Kucinich going after Obama two on one, and Kucinich actually interrupting Obama in the middle of a rebuttal.

To this, Obama put up his hand, said, “Let me finish,” and continued with a very strong and impassioned bit about the role of surgical military might in the pursuit of terrorists.

Now here is why I think this is such a vital moment. For the eighty or so minutes prior to this moment, Obama was okay, but obviously not standing out for any reason. It was pretty clear that he was out of his element, his town hall style of speaking not lending itself very well to the faster paced and significantly more structured forum of a national debate. But what he showed in that single confrontation was strength, confidence, presence and poise. He had went at once from an owl to a lion whose roar was as powerful as his bite, and you can take this one thing as a fact, if he can take that Obama, that candidate who stifled his opponent and then followed up with a killer answer, he really will be the rockstar that so many of his supporters proclaim him to be.

Winners, Losers, and Final Thoughts

Winners:

Joe Biden for putting on a performance that shows he deserves to be in the top tier.

Hillary Clinton for her laudable level of control.

John Edwards for excellent substance on health care, and sincerity in morality.

Barak Obama for exceeding expectations in foreign policy, and at least giving us a glimpse of a properly ferocious democratic candidate.

Dennis Kucinich for good policies all around and looking far more presidential than I think many people gave him credit for.

Mike Gravel for being the impassioned elder statesman.

Losers:

Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson for being completely and thoroughly uninspiring in just about any area. They weren’t even inspiring about being uninspired, they were that dull and flat.

Final thoughts:

This is just the beginning. No candidate was made or broken at this debate, and we got one hell of a long trek to go before anyone will be made or broken. That being said, I think that there are still some important things to glean from this debate.

First, we have one hell of a field of candidates. I am pleased to see such a strong Democratic field, and while watching last night’s debate, I could easily see any of five of the candidates on stage sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office (Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Biden, Kucinich). They were strong on both substance and style, and I think many of the candidates on stage did an excellent job.

Secondly, I’m also very pleased with the tone of the debate, and really hope that this is the weathervane for the rest of the campaign. One thing that you will read time and time again is how unbloody the event was, how polite and courteous. I think thi stone is vital to maintain throughout the primary not only to preserve the integrity of whatever candidate does win the nomination, but also to provide a palatable foil to the Republican brand of politics.

In the end, we do have a long road to go, and it would be folly to draw any serious conclusions at the end of this debate, but I think any democrat out there has to be pretty happy with what they saw last night.

Next week we get the first of the Republican primary debates in California, and we at Comments From Left Field fully intend to provide the same live blogging and final analysis as you saw for this debate. I welcome you to join us for both.

See ya there.

One Response to “Post Debate Analysis”

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