Debate Analysis: Winners and Losers from the Field

There are two ways to decide winners and losers in a political debate. The first is from inside the debate, the way a judge would score a match between two college debating teams – who landed the most blows, who was the most effective at countering an opponent’s arguments, who made the strongest case for his/her own side. For that kind of analysis, you can read Kyle’s post today. In general, I think he nailed it except for giving Obama more points for concision than he deserved (but then, when you use a word like “concise” about the windy likes of Joe Biden or orators like Obama, you become very aware of how relative a term it is).

But this was not a college debate, it was a political debate, and that means that where the rubber meets the road is its effect on the audience out in the field. Since this was a primary debate, that audience was party activists and most-likely primary voters. From that angle, the winners-and-losers list is a good deal different.

Like Kyle, I’m going to ignore the bottom tier because, like Kyle, I think they’re spinning their wheels. Unlike Kyle, I’m going to add Dodd to the bottom of that top tier. Dodd did himself some real good with the activists when he put a hold on the FISA bill (and won that fight, maybe), and although he didn’t effectively follow it up, he’s now on the activist radar when he wasn’t before. It isn’t likely that he has enough time to break through, but otoh it isn’t impossible, so onto the list he goes.

From the perspective of the field, nobody did themselves much good last night. For example, it’s a good thing Hillary has her DLC/BD machine in high gear because if she didn’t, she wasn’t going to harvest much support from her lackadaisical performance, rhetorical gibberish, and refusal to come to terms with any question she was asked (except the gender one). She is clearly following a Rovian-style strategy: Don’t say anything of substance in public because you might piss somebody off.

She’s also following the Al From/James Carville playbook when it comes to positions on issues (when you can deduce what they are through the cliches and persiflage). She was staunchly conservative on trade, national security, and (I think – it was hard to tell) immigration, among others. Obama slammed her effectively by saying she sounded like the Republicans (his best moment), and indeed she did. There are differences between her and Bush but in most areas those differences seem to shrink with every debate. She’s somewhat less toxically ideological, but at the rate she’s moving toward him, even that difference may vanish.

I think that without the formidable DLC machine at her back, she’d be down in the wine-and-spirits cellar with Biden and Richardson. Virtually nothing she says these days goes over well with the base. As with Bill, she’s likely to be another hold-your-nose-and-vote candidate, and at this early stage that makes her a lot more vulnerable than I think anyone realizes. If she doesn’t get a slam-dunk in NH, she could be in real trouble. As Kyle said, in the game of low expectations she wasn’t as bad as last time – she didn’t scream hysterically or pick her nose – so she didn’t lose even if she didn’t exactly win. From the field, though, her strength and conviction backing a basically conservative agenda that has in the last 7 years been almost totally discredited and is clearly NOT what the base wants to hear did her no good at all and probably hurt her, maybe a lot.

She goes down as a Big Loser.

Obama loses, too, and for some of the same reasons. First, he seems to be chasing the same DLC-defined conservative corporate base that Hillary has locked up. The problem with Obama’s best moment was the irony of it – Hillary does sound like the Republicans, but far too often so does Barack. He repeated and even enforced the right-wing canard that Social Security is in trouble, and he repeated and enforced the Bush Line on trade, once again claiming – inaccurately – that the Peru trade deal has the backing of US unions (it doesn’t), contains worker protections (sorry, no), and enforces environmental standards (uh-uh).

But his biggest problem with the activist base is going to come (if it hasn’t already) from what I’ve been saying for weeks: his naive (I’m giving it the best possible spin here) insistence on bringing “bi-partisanship” back to Washington. The activist base has finally realized that movement conservative Pubs – and that’s all that’s left in the party; they’ve purged almost all of the moderates – will not negotiate. You cannot “deal” with them, you can only surrender or face their wrath. Obama seems to have somehow missed that unmissable lesson. “How” is a mystery.

Wasn’t he in the Senate when the GOP majority was holding hearings they didn’t invite the Donkeys to? Wasn’t he there when one Pub committee chairman called the police when Democratic committee members showed up for a hearing uninvited and tried to have them ejected from the building? Hasn’t he noticed that the Democrats are the only ones who’ve compromised this past year despite being in the majority? Where the hell has he been? In a cave? Paul Krugman put it this way in today’s column:

Lately, Barack Obama has been saying that major action is needed to avert what he keeps calling a “crisis” in Social Security – most recently in an interview with The National Journal. Progressives who fought hard and successfully against the Bush administration’s attempt to panic America into privatizing the New Deal’s crown jewel are outraged, and rightly so.

But Mr. Obama’s Social Security mistake was, in fact, exactly what you’d expect from a candidate who promises to transcend partisanship in an age when that’s neither possible nor desirable.

***

In October, The Washington Post published an editorial castigating Hillary Clinton for, um, not being panicky about Social Security – and as we’ve seen, nonsense like the claim that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme seems to be back in vogue.

Which brings us back to Mr. Obama. Why would he, in effect, play along with this new round of scare-mongering and devalue one of the great progressive victories of the Bush years?

I don’t believe Mr. Obama is a closet privatizer. He is, however, someone who keeps insisting that he can transcend the partisanship of our times – and in this case, that turned him into a sucker.

(emphasis added)

Yes, it’s “Beltway wisdom” but the crucial point is that it’s the DLC’s position, corporate friendly and right-wing approved. If last night’s debate showed nothing else, it showed as clearly as possible that there are, in fact, few substantial differences between Hillary and Obama. They may be emphasizing different grafs on the DLC playbook’s page but it’s the same page. They’re after pretty much the same constituency, which goes a long way toward explaining why each has picked the other for a target.

Last night is going to hurt Obama with the activists, no question. They’ll see through his superficial spat with Hillary if they key on what he actually said, and his militant “bi-partisanship” stance is liable to prove to all and sundry that he just doesn’t have any idea at all who he’s dealing with, and that’s NOT GOOD.

Clear Loser.

The major winner in last night’s debate was Edwards, and it was – at best – a marginal victory. He didn’t land any big hits but what he did do reasonably well was showcase his populist stance. His anti-corporate rhetoric plays well to an audience of people fed to the eyeteeth with the corruption of the Bushies and the subservience of DLC/BD Democrats. He’s weak on national security and foreign policy in general – not good – but otoh he’s the only one at this point who has any credibility on the economy, trade, and domestic policies. His best line of the night was “We don’t need to replace a corporate Republican government with a corporate Democratic government”, and if he exploits that concept in the coming weeks, he can do some real damage to both Hillary and Obama with activists.

Edwards’ main problem is his TV persona. Somebody said (I can’t find it now) in the comments to either this debate or the last one that Edwards’ affect was “off”, that there was something about him they didn’t trust. That may be a result of right-wing attacks on his supposed “hypocrisy” being a rich guy talking about the poor. Teddy used to get the same shit from the Right because, let’s face it, conservatives just don’t get the idea that somebody with money might be willing to use it to fight for people who don’t instead of marshaling all their time and energy piling up more. Whenever they’re generous – on the rare occasions that happens – they always have an ulterior motive: they’ll get more out of it than they’ll lose. They assume, of course, that everyone else with money must be like them, so a populist who’s also rich simply doesn’t compute. Some of that BS has stuck to Edwards, no doubt about it, just like it stuck to Teddy until he spent a couple of decades proving otherwise. I’ve followed Edwards for a long time and I can say unequivocally that regardless of how it looks, it isn’t opportunism. He’s committed.

Which brings us to the more likely problem: the way it looks, especially on TV. In person, it doesn’t play this way but on television, to a non-Southern audience, Edward’s smile seems plastic, phony, insincere, the smile of a player conning his mark(s). In fact, it’s nothing of the kind. It’s the way you campaign in the South: you smile. You radiate friendliness. Edwards plays better in the North and West when he doesn’t smile, when he looks and sounds serious, even solemn. There was very little of that last night, and he didn’t do himself any good with 2/3 of the country. If the first primary was North Carolina rather than NH, Edwards would be a much more dangerous threat to Hillary’s machine. But it isn’t. If his populist message doesn’t over-ride his Southern persona in places like Manchester, he could be sinking out of sight after it’s over.

Finally, there’s Dodd, another marginal winner. His passionate attack on NCLB (“It’s a disaster!”) is going to go over very well with teachers and parents who are at this point sick to death of it. Everybody on the ground – especially parents with kids in schools and educational professionals – knows what an utter failure it has been and how much damage it has done both to students and to the public school system. His credentials on education are just as strong as he says they are, and what’s happened during the NCLB regime is a sore point with a mass of people who otherwise have nothing in common.

Put that together with his strong showing on civil liberties and his foreign policy cred, and Dodd finally has a workable combo of issues he could exploit to great advantage. Whether he will or not is of course the question. Even if he does, he may not have enough time to make them count.

BTW, that lick of Spanish last night was no fluke. He’s fluent. There’s a YouTube video of an interview he gave a Hispanic reporter from Univision entirely in Spanish.

In sum, if the primaries weren’t so damn close together and if Hillary didn’t have the DLC machine sewed up, last night’s debate could have meant a real change in the line-up. It still might, though the odds are against it. Hillary’s continued equivocating is starting to rub a lot more of the base the wrong way, and Obama’s naivete and right-wing leanings are more prominent now than I think they’ve ever been. Not good. By contrast, Edwards’ populist message is making inroads and Dodd’s heroic actions of the last few weeks give him a lot of solid ground to stand on. If it just weren’t so goddamn late in a rushed game, some real issues might actually get thrashed out and a strong candidate emerge who won’t sell us down the river the day after they’re sworn in.

Which is precisely what we’ve got to look forward to if Hillary wins, and might have to look forward to if it’s Obama.

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