Final Analysis: Third Democratic Debate

I know you’ve been biting your nails in anticipation, and it’s finally here, M’s final analysis of the Third Democratic Debate. You can read through our liveblogging thread here in the comments section. And if you missed it completely, you can read the transcript here.

Before I get to the nitty gritty, I also want to thank the lovely Alicia from Last Left Before Hooterville, and author of the upcoming book tentatively titled, Glass Houses, Magic Mirrors and the First Stone-Shattering the Myths of Conservatism for joining me in the commentary. The book should be due out in November, and considering I’ll be getting a signed copy and my name apparently will be in the acknowledgements, you can bet a pretty penny that we’ll be review the book here at Comments pretty shortly after.

I’m going to do this a little differently. Instead of trying to do this as winners and losers, I’m going to list the candidates in ascending order, categorizing them under two categories, Need To Go, and Made The Cut.

The Need to Go category obviously has no real weight. I’m not a king maker, and I can’t say that the Need to Go’s are actually going to go, but they need to. Essentially, these are the candidates that really need to pack it in and clear out some room for the rest of the pack. If someone Made The Cut, conversely, they aren’t necessarily a winner, but I feel they at least get to play for a little while. And remember, ascending order, we’re going to start from worst and finish with the best (just because I like suspense!)

Need To Go

PBS- I know it’s almost cliche to talk about the host of the debate, but I really felt that PBS itself had some issues here that can’t be ignored. For one, technical difficulties. To date, with the exception of the Fox News debate, I’ve had no problem watching the debates online, but when I tried to catch the webcast through PBS.org, I kept getting a screen that informed me the webcast had concluded, even though it hadn’t yet begun. I eventually had to listen to the debate through cspan’s website. But that’s me, whining. The really problem with PBS’s hosting of the debate was that it was easily one of the least informative and most poorly structured we’ve seen. Candidates started out with only sixty seconds, no rebuttals, and as the event continued on, answers had to be clipped to only thirty seconds a piece.

Compared to the veritable romp CNN provided for the last outting, this made the debate almost intolerably limiting and rigid, and on most questions, you got the feel that the candidates were rushing to the finish line, and having a hard time injecting substance. We often bemoan that there is little to learn from a candidate given the amount of time they get to answer a question during a debate, but PBS was particularly bad at this, which was a tragedy considering I LIKED many of the questions. They were tough, hard hitting, and unique, and had the format been different, had the potential to really draw out interesting conversations from the candidates.

Mike Gravel- I wanted Gravel gone after the last debate. The first debate he was somewhat interesting, kinda funny, and said a few things that reverberated. In the second debate, he came off merely as an angry old man who was flogging the Iraq War beyond the limits of sanity. Well, now, my feelings have only soured. He gave up beating the Iraq War horse, but you got the feeling that this was only because he didn’t have enough pulp left to beat and therefore got a new horse, the War on Drugs. The man’s still a one trick pony, he just got himself a new pony.

But what’s more, Mike Gravel was the only person I know(now I was listening to this, not watching, so if I missheard, feel free to correct me) to be booed during any of the debates from either party. Even John McCain, defending his immigration bill, was not booed during the last Republican debate, and those people REALLY didn’t like his bill. The line that did it was the line that closed out the debate:

“You can hear me now? We have to have a president who has moral judgment. Most of the people on this stage with me do not have that judgment, and have proven it by the simple fact of what they’ve done.”

Now, NYT transcript shows laughter, but I heard boos. In either case, this, and this alone is cause enough to politely ask the former senator to please vacate the race. This is absolutely uncalled for, it’s not speaking truth to power, it’s simply being mean, and immature. This is not how an elder statement acts, this is how She Who Must Not Be Named acts, and it the magnitude is only compounded by the cowardice of saying so when he knew no one would be allowed a rebuttal.

Worse, it paints a terrible picture for the Democratic party. The last words were a direct ad hominem against his own colleagues. There’s no room for that kind of thing here, and there’s no room for you, sir.

Governor Bill Richardson- Well, it’s official; it’s not technical difficulties nor a fluke, the man is just not good at debating. Richardson was flat all night, and made a number of glaring mistakes. The first came, when he praised Bush over AIDS funding. First, rule one as a Democratic candidate, you don’t give Bush an inch. I’m sorry, if REPUBLICANS can’t give the sitting president any love, you sure as hell don’t do it as a Democrat. But also, that Bush funding AIDS prevention deal was not nearly as sweet as the administration made it sound, and Bill should have known that.

His second big miss of the night, I would say is his assertion that FEMA should be directly underneath the president, though it’s a policy point. Fema shouldn’t be directly under the president, so much as it should be ran by someone competent. If you have someone competent, you don’t need micromanaging.

But overall, Richardson was flatter than a tire that ran over a spike strip. He may have great ad buys and good organization in early states, but the simple fact is, he’s not going anywhere until he can play with the big boys, and this is his third strike, and it’s time to head to the dugout.

Senator Chris Dodd- I really kinda don’t like doing this because he’s smart, and knows the issues cold. He’s got a lot of knowledge under that white hair of his, but it’s not enough. A lot of his proposals are flat Democratic boiler plate with little innovation to separate him from the crowd, and he just lacks fire. I think Alicia at one point actually just labeled him “Ho Hum”.

He fails to steal the spotlight for his own, and he doesn’t stand up and say, “THIS IS MY JOB! I AM THE PRESIDENT!”

He did try to grab the spotlight once, when answering about HIV and black teens, Tavis Smiley having to try and stop him a couple of times. It was forceful, fiery, insistent, and he even got to share a laugh line with Smiley at the end about Paris Hilton, but then Hillary stole his thunder, and stole it hard.

I hate to do this, but I stand by my assertion from the second debate. The club of Presidents of the United States is a very exclusive club, and one that Chris Dodd will never be a part of.

Made The Cut

Senator Joe Biden- Joltin’ Joe picks up the rear of the made the cut club, and only just barely. The biggest danger that he faces now is that a lot of his comments can be spun as condescending, borderline bigoted towards black people. Indeed I got a kind of civilizing the savages vibe from his words, but I also felt that he himself was furiously trying to avoid this to make some tough, but true points. It was a VERY fine line he was dancing, he didn’t dance it particularly well, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He will not, I promise you, get a second pass.

Also, he seemed considerably flatter than the last debate. Granted his last performance was a hard act to follow, but still, he lacked a lot of the passion that served him well last time.

I still say he makes the cut, though, because he’s still very well versed on most the issues, he still has more fire than many, and he delivered what was one of the best lines of the night in my opinion.

When it was his turn to speak on New Orleans and the after math of Katrina, he gave an impassioned speech that crescendoed with, “THIS IS AN AMERICAN CITY! IT’S AN AMERICAN PROBLEM!”

I got a little misty eyed.

So he makes the cut, but I’m going to say provisionally. If he wants to make the cut in the next debate, he not only has to have a STELLAR performance, he also needs to get some traction going in the polls, something that’s not likely to happen.

Senator John Edwards- Personally, I feel he only marginally made the cut as well. Keep in mind, it was an okay enough performance, I felt that while I wasn’t amped on it, his personal achievements and his history of poverty in his youth reverberated I believe with the audience. It did build a good foundation for his answers, so yeah, he makes the cut.

But, and here’s the thing, he needs to get off the anecdotal. He can’t keep telling us about his childhood and his poor mill worker father. He’s strong and unique on policy, and he needs to put his focus back on that. Also, he needs to find some of that charisma that aided him so well in 2004, it seems to be on sabbatical right now.

John makes the cut with a warning, he’s not going to keep making it if he doesn’t get his act in gear. Also, chalk John Edwards up as another candidate that appeared flat.

Senator Barack Obama- Yet another candidate that often times appeared to be flat, and unfortunately his worst answer of the night was the last one on Darfur. After making it through the night with essentially no major uh’s um’s and uncomfortable pauses, Darfur had Obama flopping and twitching like a fish out of water. He also missed an opportunity to show he is strong on foreign policy and national security, two areas that he desperately needs to shore up if he wants to make a go of it down the stretch.

But he makes the cut because he has improved again. He’s getting more comfortable with debating, and it shows. His answers are more streamlined, and he seems not as tentative to go for the cheap pop; a good laugh line, or an easy applause line.

Undoubtedly, he’ll get one of the better laugh lines out of this. When Biden was going on about HIV, he made a big deal about testing, even saying that he and Obama got tested.

Obama (and some may interpret this as homophobic, I realize. I didn’t even think about it that way, I thought about the following quote as more along the lines of him making sure people didn’t think he was sleeping around on his wife) jumped in and said, “LET ME CLARIFY, I GOT TESTED WITH MICHELLE!”

Lots of laughs. He also scored well on New Orleans saying, “We need a President who’s in touch with New Orleans BEFORE the hurricane happened.” The point being that one of the things that led to the disastrous aftermath was an unrealistic appraisal of the situation on the ground. That not everyone there was rich and of means and had an easy way to evacuate, nor had the proper supplies to wait the storm out. It touched on the state of the levees, and was an overall good respone.

So he makes the cut. He needs to keep improving though, as these debates are gonna get more and more eyeballs on them, and he’s going to need to prove that he can hang with Hillary soon.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich- I bet you thought I forgot about him, didn’t ya? Couldn’t be further from the truth. At the beginning of the debate, I worried which Dennis we were going to see. Was it Intellectual Liberal Dennis, or Hysterical Stand-Offish Dennis? Happily, I can report that it was an all new third Dennis who was working the crowd like a finely tuned Stradivarius.

Dennis knew how to toss the red meat to the liberals in the crowd without sounding as though he was overdoing it. He seemed well versed in every question, and seemed to get the audience to applaud, cheer, or laugh at whim. He was masterful.

It’s really sad that his campaign still won’t go anywhere.

But still, I want Senator Mike Gravel to take note, this is how you speak truth to power. Not with attacks, anger, and shouting, but with intelligent arguments, and charm.

Anyone who listens to the audio, reads the transcripts, or watches the video, can not deny, the man performed admirably, and makes the cut if for no other reason than I have no qualms listening to this version of Dennis for several debates to come. He may be too liberal to have a real shot at anything, but damn if last night’s performance wasn’t great.

Senator Hillary Clinton- I thought her performance during the last debate was nearly flawless… She just got better. She had it all, a perfect blend of style and substance, and the only person in the place that matched Kucinich in working the audience, she may have, in fact, edged him out.

On every question, even the ones that weren’t her best, she was presidential, knowledgable, and unique. Further, she stole everyone’s thunder nearly every time. If she came early in a question, everyone was playing catch up, if she came late, she blew those who went before her out of the water. On Darfur, she yanked the rug right out from under Biden, who’s particularly strong on the subject, by preceding him with a detailed and specific plan powerfully delivered. Biden tried to play catch up, but sounded second rate following Hillary.

When Chris Dodd had his one moment of the night as stated above, Hillary immediately stole it, delivering what will be most likely seen as THE line of the night, “but let me just put this in perspective. If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country. “

The lid came off the joint. I couldn’t see, but I would be willing to bet that there were more than a few people on their feet. And then, like a champion figure skater following up a tricky routine with a triple axel leap, she followed up with the Paris Hilton joke, turning the applause into gales of laughter.

She continues to meet with calls of “inelectability”, and manages to shrug them off as though they were nothing. She is incredibly talented as a politician, and at this point, I think the worst thing any opponent can do in regards to her is underestimate her, she will make you pay for it.

Final summation

Well, that was it. The “winners” the “losers”. It should be noted that while PBS didn’t make the cut, Tavis Smiley did what he could with what he had, and I would probably give him a pass, maybe a better format.

But overall, don’t expect polls to move too terribly much. Those that didn’t do well are for the most part don’t have two percentage points to rub together, so no loss there. And those who did well, well, it was a relatively low publicized debate. Biden’s words could get spun against him, and if so, that’s gonna make for some really tough times for him in the weeks and months to come, and Dennis’ liberal red meat (irony, gotta love it) may not spin well.

But you know the deal, no changes in position here guys. It’s still early, we still got plenty to go. Remember, the value in the debates is not to actually see movement in rankings, it is more along the lines of giving us insight, and a kind of metric to see how candidates are changing from one to the next.

And that’s that. Barring catastrophy, we’ll be liveblogging the next one, which I believe comes on July 23rd, and I hope to see yall there.

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