CNN/Youtube Debate Final Analysis: Who Makes The Cut?

I have gotten a great night’s sleep, I have absorbed fully the spectacle that was last night’s event, and I’m ready. Let’s do some final analysis on last night’s debate.

First things first, you can check out the official transcript from last night’s debate here, and you can check out our liveblogging of the event here. As always, our liveblogging is an open thread, so while we provide the bulk of the commentary, we leave the doors open for anyone to join in that wants to.

Joining me last night for the second time in a row was Alicia stopping by from her Hooterville blog. So I wanted to send a big thanks her way, and while Mike had wanted to join us, he had something come up at the last minute, and unfortunately couldn’t make it.

Last night was billed as a revolution among debates, “User Generated Content” where people sent in videos of their own questions. It was supposed to wrest control from the candidates, stir things up, and see how well the candidates can think on their feet when not confronted with the predictability of journalistic questions.

We were supposed to be treated to something unpredictable and telling… oh well.

Just like my last debate analysis, I’m not doing this in terms of winners and losers, but in the subtly different style of “Need To Go” and “Make The Cut”. Let’s see how they did.

NEED TO GO:

“User Generated Content”- Now I realize I’m not going to get unanimous agreement here. Of course not, but you know, one thing I think was evident last night is that there is a reason why journalists write and ask the questions for these things. One thing that struck me is that questions that seem particularly tricky, really aren’t. Would candidates be willing to earn only minimum wage while working as President? It sounds like a good question, but when you stop and think about it, it’s a softball, and a really uninterested softball at that. And we had lots of these, questions that you know that people were really trying very hard on, but they often lacked the ability to actually stimulate meaningful debate either because they were too specific or too general.

Journalists get paid to do this, and okay, I can see why.

Plus, I got annoyed with the videos pretty quickly. Look, I go to Youtube pretty much only to pick out our weekly music videos that we post here. Aside from that, I don’t get into people just being silly in front of a camcorder. I had hoped that CNN would have weeded out the silly ones, but they didn’t; even showing a rather long sketch of a couple of Rednecks joshing the field over Al Gore. There was no question posed to the candidates (there was, but Anderson granted the candidates clemency on answering it), it seemed as though CNN wanted to waste time.

The bottom line is that if I wanted to watch short video clips of other people, I would actually just sit on Youtube, or more likely I would check myself in for psychological treatment. I’m not here to listen to someone sing a debate question or to watch a melting snowman, I’m here to watch the candidates react to and answer tough, hard hitting questions. That’s not what happened last night, and you could tell it in the voice of the CNN correspondant who was covering the webcast. Everytime there was a commercial break she would say something like, “Even though there hasn’t been anything really controversial it doesn’t mean these questions are really good.”

One or two questions from real people are okay, but from now on, let’s leave the bulk of the question asking to the professionals.

Also, I was highly disappointed in the format. The first debate that CNN hosted was awesome. Lots of candidate interraction really let us see the presidential hopefuls dig in and duke it out, but in this one, we’re back to the same tired format that no one wants anyway where ultimately we have a debate in which no one, um… debates.

(As a side note, I just remembered that the second half of the first CNN debate was also questions not from journalists but from the audience and despite the hype, the second half was outshone by the first half).

Now, on to the candidates who need to go.

Senator Mike Gravel: During the first debate, Gravel added fire to the field, but by the time the second debate rolled around I was already tired of the man. In each debate it seems, he takes one horse up on stage with him, and elects to beat the ever lovin’ bejesus out of it with a tempestuous fury. In the first two debates it was the bloodlust of his colleagues. In the third debate it was the War on Drugs. And now here we are and it is “FOLLOW THE MONEY!”

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again here, and I’ll repeat it when I get to another candidate down the road. If you are going to run as a Democrat, then I ask that you at least show some comeraderie with your colleagues. I ask that you at least acknowledge that you are on the same team. Gravel can’t even go this far, and what may have once upon a time appeared to be a man speaking truth to power or trying to be the warning sign of the party has become a bitter, angry, ineffectual old man who is dragging down the debates and anyone sharing a stage with him.

One thing I find funny about him is that while he seems so anti-hawkish, while he seems so set on being anti machine, he chooses Obama as his favorite candidate; the youngest, least experienced senator on the stage. He’s not the poorest politician up there, but by a wide margin he’s not the richest. And yet he seems to get the bulk of Gravel’s ire? Where’s the hatred towards Hillary, or Edwards? Biden, being truthful as always, is one of the most hawkish democrats on stage and even HE doesn’t get as much of Gravel’s wrath as Obama. What gives?

And did my ears deceive me, or did Gravel actually try to make a case for school vouchers at a Democratic debate?

He’s wasting all of our time here, and for the second time in a row, Gravel fails to make the cut.

Dennis Kucinich: In one of the better laugh moments of the night, Dennis and Anderson banter back and forth about no one being to the left of Dennis. It was funny, but not enough to revive Dennis’ performance. To be sure, he knows how to work a liberal crowd, and he knows how to toss out the red meat, but this was not the passionate intellectual we saw in the first debate, nor the consumate crowd pleaser we saw in the third.

Instead, what we saw was more of the rabid Kucinich of the second debate, only this time his arguments often had the wind taken out of their sails by other candidates before he even got to them.

Another problem that plagues Dennis is his style. He made a hiccup in delivering two almost identical speeches throughout the night, so that the second one sounded horribly scripted, and he failed to address the audience of the Youtube questioners and instead often addressed his answers to Cooper by name.

Alicia, last night during our liveblogging, referred to Dennis as the poor “muffled voice of Americans.” I am willing to agree with this to a point. The primary problem I see with Dennis aside from his inconsistency in debate performance is the unrealistic expectations and ideals he attempts to act upon. He, like many Americans, believe that you defund the war to end it (this would be the speech that he delivered twice), but Biden undercut him hard on this point, and the second time he delivered the speech, you could tell the audience was not particularly with him anymore on it.

He’s a good man, a good liberal, and he has good ideas, but I’m afraid that he’s not polished enough as a politician to be someone who should consider a White House run, and while I agree with him ideologically, I also fear he is too liberal to be an effective president.

It’s time to give up the ghost, Dennis. You don’t make the cut.

Senator Chris Dodd: Senator Dodd has two things working against him. The first is that he only seems to have the gusto to own one question per debate. After remaining clouded in mediocrity in the first debate, every debate since he seems to have just one question that he does really well on, and the rest of the time you don’t even know he’s there, even when he’s talking. Last night wasn’t much different. Even now I have to go back through my notes just to remember which question he excelled at (Are Democrats putting politics over dealing with ending the War in Iraq?). In the liveblogging, I mentioned, and I stand by this, if he could consistantly answer every question with that level of passion and engagement, he would be doing far better than he is right now, but it just doesn’t seem to be in his ability.

The second thing working against him is his complaints about time. I made this case in the final analysis of the second debate, and i make it again now. He’s not a front runner, and unless the format of the debate specifically allows for equal time among all the candidates, you have to steal the spotlight, not beg for it. The only thing that really saved Dodd here in this last debate was the fact that Gravel was far outwhining him about the time allotments.

Still, it wasn’t enough. Senator Dodd is a good man, a knowledgeable man, and a fine senator, but he doesn’t make the cut.

Governor Bill Richardson: There’s not a whole lot to say here. I think if Richardson had a frontrunner status, he might be placed differently on this list, as you can’t say he did particularly bad. But he didn’t do particularly good, and given the fact that he is trying to claw his way up the ladder, he has a different standard to meet.

While Richardson has improved his debate performance over previous outings, he still fails to leave an impression, and I’m beginning to think that he won’t ever be able to get himself where he needs to be. Despite the improvements, I still found that, just like with Dodd, the moment Richards started to get into answering a quesion, I had to physically force myself not to go into autopilot mode.

I hope his organization in early primary states and his unique tv spots work wonders for the man because his debate performances are not going to get him anywhere as he again fails to make the cut.

Made The Cut

Senator Joe Biden: Now, I think a few people out there are placing Joltin’ Joe higher up on their lists. For the fourth time in a row he delivered a powerful performance, and stood by some of his less popular stances unapologetically. In defusing both Richardson and Kucinich, he demanded that they “Tell the truth” about pulling troops out of Iraq, and clearly listed why a complete and total troop draw down was logistically impossible. On Darfur, he was unmatched, and overall his candor is refreshing.

I really really like most of what I see from Senator Biden, and if he could miraculously manage to pull his polling numbers out of the doldrums, I could even see myself switching camps over to him. His experience is blatant and comes out in every answer he delivers, and his ability to communicate in an engaging manner is very promising. Also, I’ve rated him very high in previous debates.

But there are two things that bothered me about this performance, and therefore get him rated lower on the list than where you may see elsewhere among the punditry. The first is that he seemed to have ran out of gas late in the debate, going from the passionate fire that really defined his performances in the past to all of a sudden mumbling his way through answers. This really bothered me. The second came during one of the odder questions of the night. A man holding an assault rifle asked, “What are you going to do to protect my baby?”

Biden’s reply was, “He needs help.” I am reminded of the video snippets of Rudy Giuliani chastizing a ferret enthusiast during a radio program, and I’m forced to wonder if Biden might not suffer some blowback from this response. There are millions of Americans in this country that take their gun ownership dead seriously, and I think Biden just insulted a good chunk of them. There’s no way to tell how serious of a gaffe this was, if indeed it was a gaffe, but it definitely left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Still, about seventy five percent of Joe’s performance was spectatcular and true to form. He may not have the poll numbers to be a viable candidate, but I think he really adds to the value of the debates, and deserves to stay at least for a little while longer.

Senator John Edwards/Senator Hillary Clinton: I’m lumping these two together because in my mind, between them it was a photo finish.

John Edwards, after two unimpressive debate performances really did well to do some damage control. He eschewed much of the aggressiveness that seemed to have undercut him in earlier performances, while at the same time still showing that he not only has the substance to be a serious candidate while at the same time knows how to connect with the viewer.

In one of his better moments of the night, when addressing Health Care, he told a story I’m sure will remain in many people’s minds for some time. On his poverty tour he met someone who was born with a hairlip, and unfortunately could not speak until it was fixed. When John met him, the person was so proud because he had just gotten fixed. The man was fifty years old.

But despite his ups, John Edwards also has a tendancy to be easily flummoxed, as we saw in a question asked him by a reverend who brought up the topic of using the bible to justify denying gay people their rights. Through the night, Edwards eventually was able to recover both generally and on that question, but the fact still remains that his ability to be taken off guard is a weakness.

By contrast, Hillary has consistently turned in the best performances in previous debates. Unfortunately, last night her streak was broken. Hillary seemed tired, and lacked her usual fire. While in the past I always found that she sounded relatively candid, last night her answers sounded unusually scripted, and mechanical.

This is not to say that she didn’t do well. Indeed, she still managed to qualify her role as leader of the pack by avoiding direct confrontation between herself and her colleagues, attacking the administration instead. Also, she, as in the past, frequently stole the thunder of her rivals time and again.

But her heart just didn’t seem into it last night, and it showed. Not only that, but it allowed someone else to take over as the best performance since the debates began.

Senator Barack Obama: Simply put, wow. If you were to compare his first debate performance to this one, you would think that someone had put on an Obama suit and did the debate for him last night. His answers were smooth and crisp and to the point each and every time. He displayed that he has finally gotten comfortable with the rhythm and the tempo of a debate, and delivered his sixty second answers with ease.

When Gravel tried to level his “follow the money” accusation at Obama, Obama turned the accusation on its head by saying, “The reason why you know where my money comes from, Mike, is because of the legislation I wrote.”

His Gay Marriage answer was, at least in my opinion, flawless; let the government only recognize civil unions, and let the couple’s church recognize marriage. This is a concept I’ve been wanting to see now for years.

And he gets what is in my opinion was the moment of the night. When the field was asked if they would perform the job of the president for only minimum wage, Obama pointed out that most of the people on stage would and could because they already had the money to do so. It was a laugh line that sent the audience into gales of laughter and he followed up on the laugh line with an impressive policy speech on minimum and living wage.

So while the debate itself left much to be desired, this was Obama’s night.

Now will we see any changes in the polls? Nationwide, probably not, but Obama, who is already performing strong in South Carolina, I think may have just substantially improved his standing in that state, which could mean the difference between life and death for his candidacy.

Edwards, I think, may have improved his performance enough to slow down his downward decent in the polls, but I would be surprised to see the trend change direction.

As for Hillary, well, she didn’t do anything to hurt her front runner status, but this may very well be a warning shot fired across her brow that while Obama is behind her by a double digit margin, he’s still in this thing, and he’s still a threat.

Well folks, this concludes the final analysis of the CNN Youtube debates. Let us know what you personally thought of the debates below, and I hope you’ll join us for the next debates in our liveblogging event.

Take care.

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