Democratic Debate Final Analysis: All In The Spin

Last night seven of the Democratic presidential hopefuls gathered at Drexel University in the city of brotherly love to duke it out in a debate sponsored by MSNBC, and moderated by Tim Russert and Brian Williams.

We liveblogged the event, and for a running commentary you can go ahead and check that out here.  So without further ado, let’s take a look at what happened.

Last night showed a larger display of fireworks than we’ve gotten used to seeing at the Democratic debates.  It wasn’t quite on the level of what you see at a typical Republican debate, and I’m still waiting for the day that Democrats proudly argue over who is more liberal much as the GOP candidates do over who’s the most progressive, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

But there was a lot more attacks than normal, and they almost all seemed leveled at the frontrunner Hillary Clinton.  This with one noted exception coming from Governor Bill Richardson who played the “Can’t we all just get along?”  Spoken like a true person begging for a sweet cabinet post in the new Clinton administration.

But before the event got underway, the antagonistic tone of the debate was set by a previous interview delivered by Barack where he had telegraphed that he would from here on in become more aggressive against the “inevitable” frontrunner.  Did he do it?  Will it work?

We’ll see.

But first, I’m going to make my umpteenth call for the rest of the field to please bow out of it now.  Bill Richardson’s performance was so horrendous that at this point I’m surprised he doesn’t wear a sign around his neck that reads: “Please Don’t Vote For Me.”  Meanwhile, Dodd’s performance was about par for the course.  That is to say, he delivered one, maybe two solid answers, and the rest was the equivalent of listening to him fill out his resume.

The final answer on Dodd is that he’s a good senator and a decent guy, definately knowledgable, but also a terrible national stage politician.

Biden turned in yet another solid performance, but solid performances don’t seem to do much for the guy, so at this point, yeah, he needs to go as well.  And then there was Dennis Kucinich.

It would be difficult to quantify the level of my elation upon learning that Mike Gravel would not be participating.  Finally I wouldn’t have to hear him repeat ad nauseum, “FOLLOW THE MONEY!!!!!  FOLLOW THE MONEY!!!!”  But my excitement was shattered by Kucinich who seemed to be channeling the former senator with his exhaustive calls for Bush’s impeachment.

Once was nice to hear, but using that as an answer to every question that came his way got old very very fast.

Which brings us to the big three, and the meat of the debate.  It was clear early on that the name of the game was beat up on Hillary.  At first, it looked as though Obama was going to punt on the telegraphed move to offense, but he quickly grew more comfortable with his attacks, and was, by the end of the first twenty minutes, throwing elbows with the pros.

But this is not to diminish Edwards’ efforts at all.  Edwards joined the race on offense, and it hurt him early on as he did so at a time when many Democrats were still of the mindset that the candidates needed to not beat each other up in the primaries, thusly weakening the eventual nominee for the Republicans to finish the job.  But last night was the right time and the right place.

Most of his attacks hit dead center, and notably stung.  In fact, there can be no mistake made, last night was Hillary Clinton’s single worst performance of her campaign.  She has ducked and dodged substantive debate for the entirety of the contest, but thanks to some tough moderation and her opponents who seemed unwilling to give her an inch, her prediliction for evasion was brought to the forefront.

Further, the newer, softer, gentler Hillary Clinton was cast aside shortly into the debate as she appeared to have grown highly impatient with the attacks coming at her from all sides.  Her tone got noticeably angry and short, and on several occasions I personally thought she was on the verge of losing it.  I think that might have been possible of if the onslaught had continued throughout the debate, but about a third of the way in, the direction of the questioning allowed some of the pressure to be relieved off of her.

Still, when you stop to consider that while much of the political punditry and junkies are starting to suffer from debate fatigue, these debates, now closer to voting day, are going to be the ones that many of the primary voters are going to be watching for the first time, and the face Hillary showed was NOT what she wanted a bulk of the voters to see.

It wasn’t that she was growing visibly irritated and combative, nor that she was blatantly ducking questions to the maximum extent possible, it was both.

Don’t get me wrong, last night’s debate will not have resulted in any changing of the guards, but if things continue along this path, then I think Hillary’s going to go into January with a much tougher fight on her hands than I think a lot of people are expecting at this point.

But, it’s all in the spin.  The debate itself is nowhere near as important as the spin being placed upon it after the fact, and curiously enough, I think last night was left open enough to allow the spin to go in a multitude of directions.  In regards to Obama, was he tough enough, or was he too tough?  Hillary, was she starting to break down, or did she courageously hold her own?  Can Edwards get himself back in the race?

Early on, with the exception of Scarecrow from Firedoglake who takes the Clinton/Richardson approach (which is rather convenient for Clinton, might I add) that it’s not fair for other Democrats to attack Clinton, it would seem that the one definitive argumen is that Clinton got rocked pretty hard last night.

According to the Politico: 

In a debate against six Democratic opponents at Drexel University here Tuesday, Clinton gave the worst performance of her entire campaign.

It was not just that her answer about whether illegal immigrants should be issued driver’s licenses was at best incomprehensible and at worst misleading.

It was that for two hours she dodged and weaved, parsed and stonewalled.

And when it was over, both the Barack Obama and John Edwards campaigns signaled that in the weeks ahead they intend to hammer home a simple message: Hillary Clinton does not say what she means or mean what she says.

Andrew Sullivan:

The obvious loser was Senator Clinton. Her constant calculation, careful parsing, avoidance of direct answers to direct questions: all these were reminders of a pure politician. She’s obviously capable, extremely intelligent, and so hollow you could almost hear the focus-grouped platitudes echo within her. She also lost that new-Clinton benign smile, that newly poll-tested glow. Instead we got an occasionally droning, lecturing, and unrelenting stream of tight-faced opportunism.

Sully’s assertion of Hillary is just about dead on for last night’s debate.  Meanwhile, with the frontrunner chalking up a decided loss, it was a matter of who swooped in to get the win.

That would have to go definitively to John Edwards.  From the Fix:

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Edwards continues to make the strongest case against Clinton of any candidate in the field. Time and again last night, Edwards one-upped Obama’s hits on Clinton by using his courtroom skills to deliver devastating one-liners about the New York Senator and her record. On Iran: “Are we going to hear ‘If only I knew then what I know now,'” Edwards asked. On electability: “[Republicans] may actually want to run against you.” On change: “If people want the status quo, Senator Clinton is your candidate.” Was Edwards too angry? Too confrontational? Maybe. But, the anti-Clinton crowd wants someone to stand up strongly against her. Edwards showed he was willing to do that last night.

Meanwhile, I don’t think too many folks are going to call Obama the clear winner, again putting him in second place, a place he seems to inhabit quite a bit.  But there is good mixed with the bad for camp Obama.

The general consensus seems to be that yes, he was more aggressive than usual, but he’s both not particularly great at it, and he wasn’t aggressive enough.  But there should be some solace in that him going on the offensive did not hurt him any, and I think we could say that more of what he did last night would be better.  It is important to note that Obama has shown thus that he has adapted to a steep learning curve to debate performance. Now that he’s adopting a style change that does not agree with him, he caught on fast, and I think it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he can hone this sharper edge to a good effect before voters go to the polls.

The final rundown puts Edwards as the clear winner, with Obama displaying a solid second.  Hillary Clinton rang up a resounding loss last night, but this does not put her frontrunner status in jeopardy… yet.

If, as the Edwards and Obama camps have advertized, this assault will continue for the rest of the contest, I think Hillary may find herself in trouble, especially if Obama gets better at playing on offense.

As for how this may play out in the polls, I wouldn’t look for significant poll number changes yet, but last night felt like a kind of changing of the mood for the Democratic contest, a change that does not bode well for Hillary Clinton.

2 Responses to “Democratic Debate Final Analysis: All In The Spin”

  1. al says:

    While Obama and Edwards (the Breck girl) sounded like a pack of whining, yapping dogs, Sen. Clinton held her own, defending her positions with good reasoning, and not losing it, I felt. She looked Presidential. Obama and Edwards looked childish and amateurish, accusing her of the very things they themselves are guilty of. She looked strong, collected, and ready to be president. These other two looked like they need to buy some bubble gum and head to the video arcade, where they can insult girls, because a real woman is too much for them to handle. I was up in the air about this field, but last night, Hill became my gal.
    The far left wing of this party, if appeased by the likes of Edwards and Obama will drag this party down to defeat yet AGAIN in 2008.

  2. Micah Rose says:

    Al, it seems to me like you missed something here. Hillary Clinton has a history of changing positions whenever it is politically expedient. This type of behavior is not befitting of a Presidential candidate. She was attacked for this, and not folding doesn’t mean that she won. Appearing strong and collected does not make you a quality candidate by default. This logic would put Bush after 9-11 in a special category of candidates. If you noticed, there were no attacks based on her feminity, so put that “girl getting beat on by boys” thing up. It makes it sound like you are now rooting for her simply because of her sex. I believe any candidate the dems put forth will bodyslam the republican candidate, but I don’t want it to be her. I don’t feel like I can trust her to have any guts. What did she do after her health care plan failed? She gave up. She has the most ephemeral plan of any of the frontrunners on health care; there are almost no details. This after a 10 plus year hiatus on the issue. She has bowed out of her positions whenever it becomes inconvenient to hold them. She did this again in the debate concerning illegal immigrant licensing in New York, and has done it on the Iraq war. I expect her to continue this pattern, as it has been very consistent.

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