True to my usual practice of listening for either applause or boos, during Thursday night’s Democratic debate on CNN televised from Austin, Texas, from on campus at the University of Texas, the only “boo-ing” was directed Hillary Clinton’s way, as she took after Barack Obama for (purportedly) plagiarizing a speech by Deval Patrick, the National Co-Chairman of his campaign (and Governor of Massachusetts). Hillary’s sharp retort that using Patrick’s words is “Not change we can believe in; change we can Xerox” did not go over well with the crowd. This was the only instance of “boo-ing” in the extremely civilized 19th debate the two leading candidates have had.
First, from a woman’s perspective, what was up with Hillary’s outfit? The neckline of the black outfit reminded me of a costume from an old Star Trek set. It had a high collar that was edged in gold, which then looked as though it connected physically to her gold omega chain. It was not an unattractive look; it just looked like an early sketch of something Michael Jackson would design, with epaulets still to be attached. To be fair, it was fairly slimming and fetching from the waist up— until Hillary stood up. The hemline of the jacket then ballooned unfetchingly, making her look larger through the hips than she actually is (surely not the desired effect?).
Fashion aside, here were some of the “zingers” heard during the largely friendly debate, listed in chronological order:
Obama: “What’s lacking now are not good ideas. Washington is a place where ideas go to die.”
Obama: “What the American people want is an America as good as its promise.”
Obama: (on talking to Cuba’s new leadership): “I do think it’s important (for a nation) not just to talk to its friends, but also to talk to its enemies.” (The gizmo people liked this one.)
Clinton: “The Bush Administration has alienated our friends and emboldened our enemies.” I want to send a very strong message that the era of arrogance, pre-emption and unilateralism—those days are over.” (I wondered how this pronouncement would dampen the budding friendship between Bill Clinton and his newfound friend George Herbert Walker Bush.)
Obama: “I this the President today needs to take a more active role than 30 or 40 years ago. That’s the extra step.” (on talking to other nations)
Clinton: (“The wealthy and the well-connected have had a President for the last 7 years and I’d like the middle class to have a President now.” Clinton followed that up with the phrase, “innovation nation,” a nice rhyming phrase. She should have trotted that one out earlier in this campaign.
Clinton: (Talking about how young Latino children might come home to find their parents deported and no one there to take care of them) “That is not the America that I know. That is a stark admission of failure.” Pressed further on the immigration issue, Hillary, when asked if she would reconsider the border fence or commit to finishing it, said, “There is a smart and a dumb way to enforce immigration. I would say, ‘Wait a minute. We need to review this.’ As with so many things, the Bush Administration has gone off the deep end. I would listen to the people who live along the border.”
Clinton: “My opponent gives speeches; I offer actions…Actions speak louder than words.” (It was right about here that the offending Xerox comment crept in, surely the biggest faux pas of the night from either candidate).
Obama: (responding to Hillary’s plagiarism charge), retorted that her objections were “silly” and that it had become “silly season.” He added, “We shouldn’t be spending time tearing the country down; we should be building the nation up.”
Obama (on whether he is ready to be President “on Day One,” which, lets’ face it, Sports Fans, is becoming a really annoying phrase to hear over and over and over): “I wouldn’t be running (for President) if I didn’t think I was ready (to be Commander-in-Chief).”
Obama: (on the surge in Iraq) “The fact is that the purpose if it has not been fulfilled. We need to send a clear message that the Iraqis no longer have a blank check, like they had under President Bush….It is up to the Iraqis to determine what kind of future they will have.” Obama, after praising the efforts of the 1st Cavalry stationed out of Fort Hood, said that the decision to invade Iraq was “a tactical maneuver based on a huge strategic blunder.” He proceeded to decry how poorly our returning veterans are being treated and how veterans in Southwest Texas have to drive 250 miles to access health care. Spending $12 million a month in Iraq has kept the nation from attending to building up relations with Latin American nations (among others), and we are only spending about what is spent in one week in Iraq. He added, “Iran is the single biggest beneficiary of our invasion of Iraq.”
When asked about “earmarks”, the audience learned that there were $91 million in total “earmarks” from Obama, to secure funds for his home state of Illinois, and $342 million in earmarks from Hillary Clinton, for her home state of New York.
Obama: “The people want to know that they have a government that is listening to them again. They want their government back (echoes of Howard Dean here) and that is what I’m going to provide them with.”
The final question each was asked was, “Describe the moment when you were tested the most?” (Oh, oh. I thought. Is there really going to be an instant replay of the “I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinski” days? Democrats can rest assured there will be if Hillary is the nominee.)
Obama gave a bland answer that dealt with his work on the streets as an organizer, early in his career, a task which he committed to out of idealism rather than accepting a high-paying job with a prestigious law firm.
Hillary paused and made a comment about how everyone in the audience knew of some of her difficult moments. After the debate was officially over, some of the analysts considered this final answer—which went waaaaay off on a tangent about returning disfigured Iraq veterans and how hard they have it, compared to anything she ever had to put up with—as a “humanizing” moment for the Robo-candidate. I just found it manipulative and staged. It didn’t look or sound “real” to me, at all. I was surprised that all these smart people, these paid analysts, had been “snookered” into letting a candidate twist the “real” question around and answer whatever-the-heck she felt like. I suppose we can give her points for agility and thinking on her feet ((“Boy! I sure don’t want to talk about Bill’s infidelity. Where can I go with this?”), but I don’t think we can give her too many points for candor in her “stagy” answer. To me, it was as bad as when I job applicant says that his chief failing is that he “cares too much for others.” Contrived. Manipulative. Deceitful. Not honest. Not real. Not human. Said for effect.
In the CNN Newsroom, post-debate, some of the prevailing wisdom included this prescient line from Gloria Borger (CNN Political Analyst), “We’ve heard all the themes we are going to hear. It is what it is.” (Bring in Bill to parse the meaning of the word “is,” please. I know he can do it. He’s done it before.)
Jeffrey Toobin (CNN analyst) said, “Maybe she’s going to lose with dignity.” (My reaction: not bloody likely).
David Gergen, political analyst, decrying Hillary’s inability to “connect” with the voters emotionally said, “If she can’t establish that, I think she is going to lose.” (Gergen seems to be coming to this realization rather late in the game, but whatever.)
Donna Brasile, who ran Al Gore’s campaign and is a Super Delegate to the convention, said, “She (Hillary) needs a message firewall” and declared “Barack Obama tonight was exceptional.”
Donna Brasile, in all previous appearances and debates, had seemed to support Hillary Clinton, so this newfound enthusiasm for Obama may be indicative of the erosion of support from among the Super Delegates previously pledged to Clinton or previously listed as leaning towards Clinton.
A couple of other good moments for Obama came when he said, “On the single most important decision of our generation (the decision to invade Iraq), I have shown the judgment to lead.” He also skewered likely Republican opponent John McCain, saying, “John McCain says he doesn’t know much about the economy and he has proven that by embracing the failed policies of George W. Bush.”
One CNN analyst said, “It sounded as though Hillary was just reciting her resume.”
This was the tamest and most civilized Democratic debate since the last seated debate, when Edwards was still in the race. I found it telling that Hillary Clinton invoked John Edwards’ name not once, but twice, in praising various positions he had articulated while still a candidate. It made me wonder if she was, as they say, “sucking up” to Edwards to try to get him to endorse her and/or to try to woo and influence his committed delegates to come over to her side (the Dark Side?). Both Clinton and Obama are known to have been in contact with the North Carolina ex-Senator at his home in Chapel Hill, but no endorsements have been forthcoming so far.
It’s now do-or-die for Hillary Clinton. Most analysts expect that she will not be able to pull Texas out of the fire (it’s neck-and-neck), but that, if she does, it will be largely on the backs of the Hispanic voters in the state. Even if she does win in Texas, Hillary also has to take Ohio to be viable, according to her husband, the ex-President, and James Carville, who advised Bill Clinton and is advising Hillary.
I don’t see wins for Hillary in both Ohio and Texas happening. I’ve thought since Iowa (January 3rd) that Obama has the charisma and the rock-star aura that Hillary, on her best day, cannot summon. Nor could Bill lend Hillary his charisma. If anything, Bill has managed to tarnish his elder statesman image while bringing home few wins for his ambitious wife. Crowds, yes; wins, no.
Part of Obama’s appeal is gender-based. Part of his appeal rests on his mad oratorical skills. Much of his appeal is generational. Most of it is the “gut instinct” that each and every voter in our democracy is allowed to follow through on privately in the voting booth. (What a great country!)
It almost seems that, like Giuliani and Thompson, Hillary Clinton and the Clinton campaign all made huge mistakes (of different sorts) in planning their campaigns. In Hillary Clinton’s case, she did not anticipate this upstart Senator from Illinois being the tenacious performer he has proven himself to be. He was well-organized beyond the Clinton campaign’s wildest dreams…or nightmares. The carefully scripted plastic appearances in Iowa, prior to the first January caucus, didn’t do much to endear Hillary to voters there, and that’s where Obamamania began. Keeping Chelsea under wraps and away from the press only reinforced the image that Hillary is remote, in an ivory tower, not “one of the people.”
The biggest sticking point of the evening, the biggest debate point (which the candidates almost would not let go) was over health care, with Hillary accusing Obama’s plan (as she has on the stump) of leaving 15 million uninsured. Obama fired back that Hillary’s plan mandated that everyone have health care, which would prove a hardship. He made the very valid point that people who don’t have health care don’t have it because they can’t afford it, and garnishing their wages and making them have it, through a mandate, is not the way to go. (Obama’s plan does, however, mandate health care for children.)
Obama, while saluting Senator Clinton for her previous attempts to head up a health reform bill when Bill was President, pointed out that it was all done in secrecy, behind closed doors, and that he values transparency and would be better suited to bring people together to work to undo the damage of the Bush years. Nowhere has that been clearer than on the campaign trail.