Debate Stalemate
Fri February 22, 2008 7:49 am

There was no clear winner in the Texas Democratic debate. That result should benefit the front-runner, but who is the front-runner? Hillary Clinton is ahead in the polls here, but Barack Obama is surging nationally, and that momentum is reflected in Texas by the early vote totals. He is ahead in the bigger game, and nothing that happened last night changed that.

The most surprising aspect of the debate was Obama's demeanor. His energy level was uncharacteristically low, as if he was shooting to wound, not to kill. Or, to switch to a medieval metaphor, he kept his sword in its scabbard. His performance was that of a candidate who knows he's ahead and doesn't want to alienate supporters of the other campaign.

This is February. The general election is in November. I don't see how the American people can put up with this empty rhetoric for nine more months. It's going to get old. It's already getting old. There is going to have to be an Act II for Obama, in which he sounds like someone who has thought about these problems. Hillary has called him out about being the candidate of rhetoric, but people don't like her. They don't want her to be president. She comes with too much baggage, and her charge doesn't stick.

Clinton's performance was uneven. This should have been her crowd. The Democratic party had control of the tickets, and party regulars tend to be Clinton people. She has the party establishment; Obama has the insurgents. Sure enough, she got the enthusiastic ovations in the beginning. But as time wore on, she lost the crowd. In the second half, Obama got the bigger ovations. She made two fatal slips that cost her the crowd. One was a dig at Texas Sen. Kirk Watson. It was part of the sharpest exchange of the night.

CLINTON: And there are differences between our records and our accomplishments. I have to confess, I was somewhat amused, the other night, when, on one of the TV shows, one of Senator Obama's supporters was asked to name one accomplishment of Senator Obama, and he couldn't.

The attack on Austin's state senator in his presence showed abysmal advance work and that oh-so-Hillary quality to go one step too far. She tries to keep her competitiveness under control, but every once in a while it comes out, and it isn't pretty. Even in the media room people gasped; there was hissing from the debate audience.

The other exchange that caused her to lose the crowd concerned the issue of whether Obama had plagiarized from a speech by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who is Obama's campaign co-chairman. (Answer: yes.)

CLINTON: Well, I think that if your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words. That's, I think, a very simple proposition. And, you know, lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox.

She had him when she said, "If your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words." But "change you can Xerox" was one step over the line. My reaction in live-blogging was, "Ooh, I'm glad my wife isn't like that." It occurred to me at the time that maybe it's harder for a woman to get away with sharp, contrived rhetoric than a man. Or maybe it's just Hillary. You can see from the applause Obama got that the audience didn't like it a bit.

I can understand why Hillary wants to engage Obama on the subject of words and rhetoric, because, as she sees it, a debate is about scoring points. Her experience against his, her accomplishments against his, her commitments against his. She wins all of these comparisons. But she doesn't "get it." Presidential debates are not about scoring points. They are about symbolism and character and how you present yourself as a person to the American people. Her misunderstanding of the nature of presidential debates was evident in the exchange that followed the first break, when she was asked if Obama is qualified to be commander-in-chief:

CLINTON: Well, I believe that I am ready and I am prepared. And I will leave that to the voters to decide. But I want to get back to health care, because I didn't get a chance to respond after Senator Obama finished.

No, no, no. This is all wrong. It betrays a flawed understanding of the rules of engagement. When you ignore the question and go back to argue something that happened five minutes before, you reveal character. She just HAD to make that point. My wife wants to whup me when I do that. What she had to say about the difference between her and Obama as future commanders-in-chief was far more important than making an obscure point about health care.

The most memorable moment in the debate was Hillary Clinton's answer to the final question. Campbell Brown said, "We thought we would sort of end on a more philosophical question. You've both spent a lot of time talking about leadership, about who's ready and who has the right judgment to lead if elected president. A leader's judgment is most tested at times of crisis. I'm wondering if both of you will describe what was the moment that tested you the most, that moment of crisis."

CLINTON: Well, I think everybody here knows I've lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life. And I am grateful for the support and the prayers of countless Americans. But people often ask me, "How do you do it?" You know, "How do you keep going?" And I just have to shake my head in wonderment, because with all of the challenges that I've had, they are nothing compared to what I see happening in the lives of Americans every single day.

And, you know, no matter what happens in this contest -- and I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. Whatever happens, we're going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that's what this election should be about.

Everyone in the building seemed to have the same reaction to Hillary's response: It sounded like a valedictory, the statement of someone who was seeing something slipping away and was coming to terms with it. It was the best and most genuine glimpse of her that she has allowed us to have. Obama, on the other hand, gave an answer that was rote and totally unrevealing. So his biggest crisis was deciding to turn down Wall Street law firms to practice civil rights law. Big deal.

He's going to have to do better, and know more, if he is going to be the next president of the United States.

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