A prelude note: There is a lot of quoting in this post. For the most part, I’ve cut the quotes down to the bits that are relevant. But there is still a lot. So, for the readers who are short on time, or don’t want to read the entire quotes, the bits that are in bold are the most relevant parts to the argument being made. Also, the transcript of the debate can be found here.
Well, another debate (possibly the last), and with all the theatrics that led up to it, absoluetly none of it resulted in any blood or guts or headlocks. Disappointing, really. Though to be expected. Hillary Clinton has had a different voice and a different message for each of the past, like, three days.
First there was joy and concession:
The Austin, Texas debate (22/02/08)
‘You know, no matter what happens in this contest — and I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored.’
Then there was unbridled anger:
Press conference in Ohio (23/02/08)
‘So shame on you, Barack Obama. It is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public. That’s what I expect from you. Meet me in Ohio. Let’s have a debate about your tactics and your campaign.’
Then the lowest form of wit, sarcasm (it really was, watch the video):
Providence, Rhode Island, Press Conference (25/02/08)
‘I could just stand up here and say ‘Let’s just get everybody together, let’s get unified’. The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect. Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions at how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.’
Everyone thought with that sort of lead up, that Clinton would have to walk the very fine line at the Ohio debate of attacking the favoured frontrunner, but still come off as personable and friendly: She needed to be the person you could and wanted to vote for. It was that or jump off the deep end in some last ditch effort to certify her insanity.
But no. For the umpteenth time, Clinton disappointed and let down all. The debate, for the most part, was civil and policy-grounded. Extremely policy grounded. Health care, N.A.F.T.A., and foreign policy were the main topics, and they were for a reason. Clinton’s crazy rant in Ohio came from flyers that had been sent out (weeks and months ago) by the Obama campaign that were concerned with Clinton’s positions on N.A.F.T.A. and health care. And Clinton’s even more bizarre sarcastic rant in Providence was about Obama’s foreign policy positions. So these three topics coming up was to be expected.
The first question of the night though was an interesting one. The moderators (Williams and Russert – who did a great job I might add) confronted Clinton about her changing rhetoric and performances on the campaign since the last debate. I’ve probably never seen anyone back-peddle or dodge a question quite like this:
Williams: Senator Clinton, we’re here in Ohio. Senator Obama is here. This is the debate. You would agree the difference in tone over just those 48 hours was striking.
Clinton: Well, this is a contested campaign. And as I have said many times, I have a great deal of respect for Senator Obama, but we have differences. And in the last several days, some of those differences in tactics and the choices that Senator Obama’s campaign has made regarding flyers and mailers and other information that has been put out about my health care plan and my position on N.A.F.T.A. have been very disturbing to me. And therefore, I think it’s important that you stand up for yourself and you point out these differences so that voters can have the information they need to make a decision.
Ok, but you do concede that your different tones have made you appear to be, say, a raving loony? Perhaps that’s the only thing your campaign hasn’t tried to beat Obama. Anyway, the runaway frontrunner Obama had this to say about the past few days:
Obama:I have endured over the course of this campaign repeatedly negative mailing from Senator Clinton … suggesting that I want to leave 15 million people out [of my health care plan]. According to Senator Clinton, that is accurate. I dispute it, and I think it is inaccurate. On the other hand, I don’t fault Senator Clinton for wanting to point out what she thinks is an advantage to her plan. The mailing that we put out accurately indicates that the main difference between Senator Clinton’s plan and mine is the fact that she would force in some fashion individuals to purchase health care.
He managed to take the effective high-road, and well done to him. But, giving to temptation, he followed up with a little jab to the face:
Obama: But I think it’s very important to understand the context of this, and that is that Senator Clinton has … constantly sent out negative attacks on us, e-mail, robocalls, flyers, television ads, radio calls. And, you know, we haven’t whined about it because I understand that’s the nature of these campaigns, but to suggest somehow that our mailing is somehow different from the kinds of approaches that Senator Clinton has taken throughout this campaign I think is simply not accurate.
Nice retort there from the future candidate. Then came the first policy discussion of the night – health care. And the universal coverage debate that we heard last week started up all over again, thanks to Clinton. Does she really have no new material? Did she use all her ‘good stuff’ up before Super Tuesday? Apparently so, because for 16 minutes, she didn’t answer a single question, didn’t allow the topic to be changed, and talked over candidate and moderator alike:
Clinton: Well, there’s hardly anything be [sic.] more important? I think it would be good to talk about health care and how we’re we going get to universal health care.
Why? Because it’s the only thing that you can talk about without there being precedence to call you a flip-flopper! Eventually her antics (the talking over people, the stubbornness to not change the topic, the knit-picking) became so bad that Obama quipped with:
Obama: I’m going to get filibustered — I’m getting filibustered a little bit here.
Wikipedia has a good definition for what a filibuster is. In this sense, Clinton was running down the clock in an effort to make herself look better, make Obama look bad, and not give any room. Of course, it didn’t work, because the topic changed, everyone knew what she was up to, and those who didn’t had fallen asleep by that point. Seriously, anyone whose vote would be swayed by the differences in their universal health care policies has already decided, and no one wants to hear another pointless debate about it.
Which is why I was extremely glad to see that topic change to N.A.F.T.A. I knew that this had the potential to create an egg-on-face moment for Clinton. And she knew it too, which is why she said this:
Clinton: Well, can I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time. And I don’t mind … I do find it curious, and if anybody saw “Saturday Night Live,” you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.
That silly reference is to the show Saturday Night Live who had a sketch that portrayed Obama as getting preferential treatment from the media over Clinton. That the media outlets go out of their way to ensure that Obama gets treated better than Clinton. It was a sketch on a comedy show that is occasionally funny. The reference by Clinton got her booed by the crowd. An appropriate response.
Anyway, the real debate started up, with a short and concise answer from Clinton as to whether she supported N.A.F.T.A. or not:
Clinton: You know, I have been a critic of N.A.F.T.A. from the very beginning. I didn’t have a public position* on it, because I was part of the administration, but when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic.
* Note that she didn’t say ‘political office’
… ok. I can sort of see an answer in there if I squint a little, and turn my head to the side. Anyway, saying that she’s been a critic off it since the beginning, that should end the debate, right? That’s what she was probably hoping for at least. But Obama had to ruin her party:
Obama: Well, I think that it is inaccurate for Senator Clinton to say that she’s always opposed N.A.F.T.A. In her campaign for Senate, she said that N.A.F.T.A., on balance, had been good for New York and good for America. I disagree with that. I think that it did not have the labor standards and environmental standards that were required. Now, I think that Senator Clinton has shifted positions on this and believes that we should have strong environmental standards and labor standards, and I think that’s a good thing.
And if that wasn’t enough, the moderators wanted to get in on the act, right after Clinton said that Obama wasn’t taking her full record into account. I don’t know if it was payback for all the droning about health care, but those moderators wanted to get a few kicks in there:
Russert: You did say in 2004 that on balance N.A.F.T.A. has been good for New York and America. You did say that. When President Clinton signed this bill — and this was after he negotiated two new side agreements, for labor and environment — President Clinton said it would be a force for economic growth and social progress. You said in ’96 it was proving its worth as free and fair trade. You said that — in 2000 — it was a good idea that took political courage. So your record is pretty clear.
Russert: … because this was something that you wrote about as a real success for your husband. You said it was good on balance for New York and America in 2004, and now you’re in Ohio and your words are much different, Senator. The record is very clear.
And once again, we saw the raw example of how Clinton has picked and chosed her way thus far. She likes to claim that her record includes the record of President Clinton’s. Of course, she doesn’t ever take under her wing the negative aspects, like this. But why should she? She did, after all, hold the prestigious political office of First Lady. Did I say prestigious? And political?
Moving on to the issue of jobs. This was a rather interesting bit of research by the team:
Russert: Senator Clinton, on the issue of jobs, I watched you the other day with your economic blueprint in Wisconsin saying, this is my plan; hold me accountable. And I’ve had a chance to read it very carefully. It does say that you pledge to create 5 million new jobs over 10 years.
And I was reminded of your campaign in 2000 … where you pledged 200,000 new jobs for upstate New York. There’s been a net loss of 30,000 jobs. And when asked … you told The Buffalo News, “I might have been a little exuberant.” Tonight will you say that the pledge of 5 million jobs might be a little exuberant?
Something that voters might want to keep in mind. The topic moved onto foreign policy, where Obama said that Clinton “equates experience with longevity in Washington” – an idea that he, nor many other people, believes to be true. Of course, Clinton hates it when foreign policy comes up in any way, shape, or form, because Obama just needs to say this:
Obama: On the most important foreign policy decision that we face in a generation — whether or not to go into Iraq — I was very clear as to why we should not — that it would fan the flames of anti-American sentiment — that it would distract us from Afghanistan — that it would cost us billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and would not make us more safe, and I do not believe it has made us more safe.
But for the first time ever in the campaigning, Clinton had formulated a defense that looked pretty good on the surface. It was that Obama wasn’t in the same position as her when the voting happened, so they shouldn’t be compared until they were both Senators on the same level:
Clinton: So the fair comparison was when we both had responsibility, when it wasn’t just a speech but it was actually action, where is the difference? Where is the comparison that would in some way give a real credibility to the speech that he gave against the war?
But showing how great a thinker, how smart a man, and how ill-deceived he is, Obama instantly had a retort to the claim that it was just one speech that didn’t count for anything:
Obama: My objections to the war in Iraq were simply — not simply a speech. I was in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign. It was a high-stakes campaign. I was one of the most vocal opponents of the war, and I was very specific as to why. And so when I bring this up, it is not simply to say “I told you so,” but it is to give you an insight in terms of how I would make decisions.
And we were shown just how much foresight Obama has. And, similarly, in one swift move, he was able to show that while he might not have the “longevity” that others have, he has a mind for the job he is running for. And after making that point, he was charged with having said ‘bomb Pakistan’. Obviously it was a mistake on Clinton’s part, because she was regretting it from the get-go of Obama’s answer:
Obama: With respect to Pakistan, I never said I would bomb Pakistan. What I said was that if we have actionable intelligence against bin Laden or other key al Qaeda officials, and Pakistan is unwilling or unable to strike against them, we should. And just several days ago, in fact, this administration did exactly that and took out the third-ranking al Qaeda official.
Don’t these people learn: Obama has a sound, constructed, and voter-winner answer to ever charge! Don’t buy into the ‘Obama has no policy’ rumours – he has policy, and he has it in boatloads. He is qualified to become President.
The topic turned to the sarcastic outburst that Clinton made in Providence. Of course, Clinton wanted to move on. Obama, had he been any any less of a morally superior person, would have exploited it for all it was worth. Instead, he took the highroad again:
Obama: Well, I thought Senator Clinton showed some good humor there. I would give her points for delivery.
Yes, he went on to defend himself, but it wasn’t a hypocritical attack about attacks, nor was it an ugly rhetorial work that we now remember Clinton for. It was to-the-point, and contrasted their two platforms. It was the third contrast of the night mind you – Clinton had distinguished herself from Obama on health care, Obama had done it on Iraq, and now on this issue. A fourth, you might argue, was Obama showing that he is above mud-slinging and ugly politics, while Clinton enjoys wallowing in and is the face of.
Clinton, for her part, said that that Providence rally was her:
Clinton: Having a little fun. You know, it’s hard to find time to have fun on the campaign trail, but occasionally you can sneak that in.
There was some more charges laid by Clinton, of Obama, before that topic was continued with a video of Obama saying:
Obama: [Clinton portrays] herself as co-president during the Clinton years. Every good thing that happened she says she was a part of. And so the notion that you can selectively pick what you take credit for and then run away from what isn’t politically convenient, that doesn’t make sense.
Finally! In a debate, where the two are facing one-another, the topic is brought up that has been infuriating this blogger, and millions of others. How Clinton manages to chop and choose at her own free will, and never takes responsibility, only credit. He then said, live at the debate:
Obama: What I’ve said, and what I would continue to maintain, is you can’t take credit for all the good things that happened but then, when it comes to issues like NAFTA, you say, well, I — behind the scenes, I was disagreeing. That doesn’t work. So you have to, I think, take both responsibility as well as credit.
Then Obama was free to defend himself against the charges that Clinton had made about him prior – which included health care (surprise surprise!), his voting record, and some other minor things. He had a good chunk of time allowed for this, and minimal interruptions from Clinton surprisingly. And eventually the topic turned to campaign finance.
This is an interesting point, as a while ago, before Obama became this maverick fundraiser and the frontrunner, and was clawing for column inches and publicity, he agreed to public financing only for the general election if he was elected the nominee. Now that things have changed, Obama has seemed to be erring on this pledge. It was brought up, and Obama had to do some maneuvering himself:
Obama: What I — what I have said is, at the point where I’m the nominee, at the point where it’s appropriate, I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that works for everybody.
Fortunately for Obama, Clinton has no legs to stand on with this issue. If she were to jump on it, Obama can say he has only taken money from American citizens, no lobbyist groups at all. Clinton is bankrolled by lobbyist groups, so she has nothing.
Next we moved onto a phase of agreement. Antisemitism was the topic, where Obama and Clinton has identical policies on racism and the sovereignty of Israel. Then onto claims that Obama is the most liberal voting Senator currently serving (more than Ted Kennedy!). Obama performed quite well, pointing out that there were only 2 different votes between Clinton and himself, and of these, one wasn’t really a liberal issue. He went on to say that the days of what is ‘left and right’ are over, and that it’s time for new politics. Then the two discussed the happenings in Russia, and neither spoke highly of President Putins future successor. In fact, they both all but said he was a puppet and that the U.S.’s relationship with Russia had fallen into a bad place thanks to President Bush.
Finally, closing remarks, and each were allowed to take back one thing. Clinton wanted to take back her vote to authorize the war in Iraq, while Obama wanted to take back his inaction in trying to stop Congress’ interjection into the Terri Schiavo case.
But then came something interesting. It reminded me of when two friends are meeting at a funeral for the death of one of their other friends. And they are talking about all the good times they had, and the memories, and how the dead guy was a real ‘champ’. That’s what seemed to happen. Obama suddenly started singing Clinton’s campaigning praise in a way that made it look like he knew it was over. There were comments like ‘you ran a really good campaign’ said by both candidates, and a few moment where they were both taking sympathy on Clinton.
Then, all of a sudden, it was as if Clinton remembered that there was still March 4 coming up, and reminded everyone about her service record, about how ‘great’ a president she would make, etc. It was the same old stump speech that we’ve heard, so I’m not about to repeat it here.
So at the end of the night, who won? Well, Obama out-performed Clinton on all the topics bar health care. But seeings that health care has been dragged through the mud over the past week, and in this debate, winning that (as Clinton did) really didn’t stand for much. It might not even stand as a win come to think of it. Obama out performed Clinton on foreign policy, on Iraq, on reputation, on record, on N.A.F.T.A., on nearly everything. That’s not to say Clinton was awful – she just wasn’t nearly as good as she has been in the past. This was probably Obama’s best debate in the entire series. He came off as presidential through the whole night – cool, calm, and collected.
Obama also won in terms of what will happen because of this debate. Clinton needed to knock Obama out of the park on every policy issue, then knock him off his perch with something special in order to break his momentum and to stop the polls from moving around in Texas and Ohio. And she didn’t do that at all. On the other hand, Obama rammed home N.A.F.T.A. – which will cost Clinton votes in Ohio – and didn’t make any mistakes that will cost him votes. By the fault, his polling numbers will improve in Ohio, and he is already ahead in Texas.
So another win for Obama!