7/25/2007

After the Debate (D)

After having a bit of time to let Monday's Democratic presidential debate sink in, I'm ready to chime in with my own assessment of how well the candidates did, how they should be feeling, and where they should go from here.

Hillary Clinton: Clinton has done a superb job of moving to the left without burning her bridges with moderates and even conservatives regarding Iraq. The fact that she voted for the Iraq war authorization should have doomed her in the primary, at least according to many pundits. However, now there is not much daylight between her and Obama regarding getting out. Being able to pull this off is a significant political feat. In the debate, she did an excellent job of appearing competent, resolute, thoughtful, and even approachable. Simply put, she looked presidential. Her performance will continue to allay the fears voters have that she is a shrill, polarizing candidate. Perhaps some of the perceived hatred towards her is simply a kneejerk reaction to the Hillary "brand?" (This is similar to the thoughts evoked by hearing the names of other famous people with whom we simply call by their first names: "Brittney, Paris, and Rush." Either you love them or you hate them, right?) Anyway, it seems now like the more people hear her speak in the debates, the more comfortable they become with her. She did not win the debate by any means, but the most important point is that she did well enough and probably beat expectations. One point cannot be denied, however. Hillary Clinton is an extremely talented and gifted politician, and this was reflected in the debate on Tuesday.

Best moment: Her smackdown of Barack Obama regarding talking with leaders of rogue nations "in the first year of their presidency." Even though Obama's response was sufficient, especially for the left-leaning Democrats, Clinton's "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes" remark displayed a sense of executive cunning that made Obama look like a greenhorn. Seeing that Obama is seen as her chief rival for the nomination, this was exchange was political manna from the heavens.

Worst moment: Clinton's avoidance of the term "liberal" to describe herself was both predictable and calculated. "Modern progressive" sounds a bit PC and reminds voters of how cautious she tries to be. It was a response that reeked of Clintonian triangulation that flusters Democrats. No doubt Republicans will have a field day with that on talk radio as they blast it as elitist, PC bombast.

Immediate threat: Obama is obviously Clinton's biggest threat simply because of the enthusiasm surrounding his campaign and the fact that it makes the subtext of "Clinton vs. Obama" "experience vs. optimism." Clinton can survive without going on offense, but Obama does not have that luxury.

Indispensable ally: The sheer size of the Democratic field works to Clinton's advantage. The longer this race is between Clinton and 7 other candidates, the easier it is for Clinton to win the nomination. She clearly benefits from a larger field because it makes it harder for the other candidates to distinguish themselves and challenge her.

Where to go from here: Clinton should pound the "experience" issue. Again, I must stress that Obama did not make a fatal mistake. However, Clinton was able to successfully turn his remarks into her advantage. Knowing that "inexperience" is Obama's greatest weakness, this exchange provides a perfect example of this. She does not need to engage the other candidates. The general political rule is that you go on offense when you're running behind. However, pressing Obama's "naivity" could do a good job of stalling Obama or sending him into a tailspin. She also needs to be on the lookout for a new "ABH (Anybody But Hillary)" candidate in the event that Obama fades.

Barack Obama: One cannot deny the enthusiasm people have about Obama's campaign. Clearly, he has tapped into something that other candidates haven't. However, Obama seems unable to meet the lofty expectations people have of him. When he opens his mouth, they expect a near-religious experience. However, many of them are getting the sense that there's not much there. Is Obama underwhelming? Has he peaked too soon? In the debate, Obama did okay, but not great. Perhaps the harshest attack came from the grenade-lobbing Mike Gravel, but he weathered it nicely. However, a more fatal exchange took place later in the debate between him and Clinton. My sense is that voters really want Obama to succeed because of what an Obama nomination would say about the Democratic Party and the United States (if he wins it all in November). However, he does not quite seem to have what it takes in terms of policy. The "what does he stand for?" and "is he experienced enough?" questions were not erased because of his performance on Monday. Again, Obama did okay at the debate. However, when expectations are as high as they are for him, "okay" isn't good enough.

Best moment: Obama had a good line about withdrawing troops from Iraq: "[paraphrased quote] the time for thinking about how to get out of Iraq was before voting to authorize the war." That reminded voters of how Hillary's "experience" still led to poor "judgment." Her war vote and his early opposition to it are two of his strongest weapons against Clinton and he is wise to press them.

Worst moment: See Clinton's "best moment." Basically, this exchange caught Obama off guard and made Clinton look presidential at his expense. The high population of Cuban-Americans in Florida probably wrote off Obama bigtime when he said he'd meet with Castro. Those voters vote the issue, rather than the party. And Obama is on the wrong side of that.

Immediate threat: Himself. Obama has it all. He has good looks, a compelling biography, the gift of rhetoric, a legion of fired up volunteers, and a solid campaign apparatus. However, the main attraction is failing to live up to expectations in a lot of people's minds. Obama seems to be a "yes, but" candidate in that voters generally seem to like him and respond well to him, but their support is a bit tepid. Are voters dating Obama now and preparing to marry another candidate later?

Indispensable ally: The media. The media are doing their best to frame the Democratic race as "Clinton vs. Obama." This keeps Obama's name in the news and may encourage new voters to figure out what "Obama" is all about. This increased exposure also allows Obama more opportunities to get his message out. And in the event that the media go overboard, Obama could always turn the media into a useful foil, just like he did when he railed against them "talking about how he looked in a swimsuit."

Where to go from here: Obama needs to confront the experience issue. Highlighting his work as a community organizer is not going to satisfy these concerns. He's going to have to flesh out one meaningful policy proposal, including how much it costs, how he plans to pay for it, why it's necessary, who it will benefit, and how it will be implemented. This is not an issue he can dodge for much longer. Granted, other candidates haven't really done this either. But Obama should think of this as a necessary test that is unique to his candidacy.

John Edwards: The air is slowly deflating from the balloon that is Edwards' candidacy. He has had a rough couple of weeks, courtesy of self-inflicted wounds (e.g., the "haircut") and attacks from others (e.g., Ann Coulter and the proxy war between Elizabeth Edwards and Bill Clinton). I've read several debate reviews that said Edwards performed well and was one of the "winners," but I must disagree. I thought his attacks were too weak or too indirect to be effective (e.g., "we don't need triangulation"), his empathy seemed contrived, and he failed to have a breakout moment. John Edwards' campaign is in a lot of trouble, and this debate didn't help.

Best moment: Edwards looked classy when he said that if a person didn't want to vote for Clinton because of her gender or Obama because of his race, he doesn't want his vote. I really thought he responded to that question ("Is Clinton 'woman' enough? Is Obama 'Black' enough?") in the best possible way a White male could.

Worst moment: Why in the world did John Edwards make that stupid remark about Clinton's pink jacket? Yes, it was a minor issue, but that's the kind of self-inflicted wound that Edwards can ill afford to make. It turned the crowd against him and in favor of Clinton who could play the victim. And it reminded female voters everywhere about how males may treat them diminutively both at home and at work. Women are sensitive about issues related to their appearance and don't want people telling them they are unattractive or their clothes are no good. And the fact that this happened at the end of the date means it's more likely that this gaffe was the last memory people had of his performance at the debate. Oops.

Immediate threat: Bill Richardson. Richardson has been methodically chipping away at the daylight between the two candidates in the polls. Richardson is now running third or tied for third in New Hampshire, for example. And this is leading to several stories in the media that talk about "Edwards jostling with Richardson for third place," "Edwards tied with Richardson in latest poll," and "Richardson replacing Edwards in the top tier." And when one looks at experience while comparing Edwards and Richardson, Richardson will win every time. If Richardson can overtake Edwards in an early primary state, Edwards is through.

Indispensable ally: Elizabeth Edwards. She speaks passionately and is highly sought after. In light of "Jacketgate," Edwards may need her to help smooth over tensions with female voters. Also, because Edwards is portrayed as a "rich trial lawyer" whose convictions "change with the polls," putting his wife on the campaign trail may serve to humanize him. Perhaps she can help him improve his standing among females by picking them off from Clinton's camp.

Where to go from here: Edwards needs a new issue. Even though poverty has been the main focus of his campaign so far, the debate audience cheered wildly when he grew angry and passionate as he railed against America's failed health care system and lack of health insurance. His anger seemed genuine too. That was a moment when he truly connected with average people. The poverty issue just doesn't seem to evoke such passion. Health insurance and access may be a new good direction for him.

Bill Richardson: Richardson did a much better job in this debate than he did in the previous ones, although he still doesn't sound as polished or as disciplined. However, there was no getting around the fact that Richardson is an exceptionally well-qualified candidate. And he made sure voters knew he was a governor (an executive), rather than a senator (a talker). Voters who worry about the collective lack of experience Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have may find Richardson to be an appealing alternative. Look for his standing in the polls to continue their slow rise, as he easily beat the low expectations his previous debate performances have created.

Best moment: The way Richardson spoke about education and No Child Left Behind connected with voters. I saw the post-debate stories about focus groups and dial-testing and they all agreed that Richardson evoked the most favorable responses when he talked about this. He gave an itemized list of what's wrong and how to fix it. That take-charge executive style of speaking really served him well.

Worst moment: Joe Biden challenged Richardson's Iraq withdrawal plan on the basis that it is not feasible to transport so many troops so quickly. This may have made some voters wonder if his "no residual forces" plan was really well thought out or if it was more of a slogan to appease the antiwar left.

Immediate threat: Joe Biden is probably the second most qualified candidate in the race. Biden is also the only candidate that can stand up to Richardson when it comes to foreign policy. Because of the force with which Biden speaks and how thoughtful his arguments are, Richardson must be careful not to let Biden encroach on his turf. After all, Richardson is supposed to be the "foreign policy" candidate, right? If voters believe Biden provides a foreign policy alternative, that could hurt Richardson.

Indispensable ally: John Edwards is making Bill Richardson look good, especially because the two of them are being mentioned together more frequently. The top-tier candidates receive a lot more media attention than the second-tier candidates. But because of Richardson's momentum, he is overtaking Edwards for the third slot. So stories of Edwards' decline are also yielding stories of Richardson's ascent.

Where to go from here: If Obama and Edwards continue on their current path (downward), Richardson could very well emerge as the Clinton alternative, or the ABH candidate. His job interview ads are clearly resonating and the depth of his knowledge of world affairs and executive issues is piercing through his lackluster debating skills. Could slow and steady be the ticket to winning the race?

Joe Biden: Biden turned in yet another superior debate performance. There is no denying the fact that for all his quirks and verbal gaffes, this is a very intelligent man. The way he talked about Iraq and why we can't withdraw displayed a level of thoughtfulness and engagement that voters around America could only wish the current president had. His honesty and painful truths also came across well. This provided a good contrast to Obama (even if it was only implicit) because it shows that we are living in a dangerous world with no easy solutions and that rhetoric and sparring over past votes ignores the perils facing the nation now. In my estimation, Biden won this debate in a rout.

Best moment: As stated above, the way he dissected the Iraq and Darfur issues clearly showed that Biden understands the world in which we live. He sounded authoritative, but not angry. I wonder how many Democrats in the audience wish he had run in '04 when there was a much weaker field of candidates?

Worst moment: Biden did not really have any bad moments during the debate, but the way he tried joking about Dennis Kucinich at the end was a bit off-putting. ("I don't like a damn thing about him.") For someone who is still recovering from the stigma of having a mouth that is out of control, he should be a bit more careful. Biden is not through yet, but he doesn't have much margin for error.

Immediate threat: Bill Richardson is occupying the same territory that Biden wants to occupy in terms of his experience, competence, and ability to get things done. Richardson has also provided a blueprint for how a middle of the pack candidate can vault into the top tier. There are still too many candidates in the race for Biden to get media ink. Richardson began to get more ink only recently. But if Richardson weren't in the race, Biden's ascent and passion would be the story. Richardson is to Biden what Obama and Edwards are to Gore. He needs the other guy to stumble before he has his opening.

Indispensable ally: Interestingly enough, Bill Richardson is also Joe Biden's ally in that they can both double team Obama and Edwards in terms of their youth and lack of experience. I've even seen a few people asking about a Richardson-Biden ticket or even having Biden as Secretary of State. This is all favorable press that Richardson helped generate. If Richardson is the "experience" candidate, then Biden is the "experience" alternative.

Where to go from here: Biden's future really depends on fundraising. I've seen campaign e-mails and other pundits raving about Biden's debate performance, so perhaps a "Biden boomlet" will take place. He's doing everything he possibly can, but there's just too much going on and there are too many candidates for him to break out. Perhaps he should call for issues debates in which all the candidates get together and talk about only one issue at a time. In other words, there could be an Iraq debate, an economy debate, an immigration debate, etc. An Iraq debate would be particularly beneficial for Biden.

Chris Dodd: Dodd is saying all the right things, he seems like a likable candidate, he is experienced, and he is a good speaker. But he's not catching any traction whatsoever. It took me a while, but I've finally figured it out. Dodd comes across as senatorial, rather than presidential. It's not his message, it's his presentation. He just doesn't seem to inspire or excite voters. So he gets lost in the shuffle. Monday's debate is no exception. He made no mistakes in the debate and seemed to be in line with most Democrats on most issues. However, for someone who is so far behind, Dodd lost by not winning. In other words, Dodd has to compel people to support him. And until he does that, people will continue to ignore him. When he speaks, one gets the impression that he is talking to the debate moderator, rather than to the voters. That's his biggest problem.

Best moment: Do you remember anything that Dodd said?

Worst moment: Again, do you remember anything that Dodd said?

Immediate threat: His presentation. Dodd is vanilla ice cream, white bread, and corn flakes all rolled into one. There's the Hillary, who needs no introduction; Obama, who is new and fresh; Edwards, who was the 2004 vice presidential nominee; Richardson, who has the funky job interview ads; Kucinich, the "peacenik" liberal (that's the caricature); and now Biden, the forceful foreign policy authority. What is Dodd? A senator.

Indispensable ally: Perhaps Dodd benefits from being the invisible candidate because this allows him to fly under the radar undetected. The only problem is, Bill Richardson was doing the same thing and is finally getting some buzz. Where is Dodd's buzz? At least he can benefit from exceeding expectations simply because there are no expectations at all right now.

Where to go from here: I'm really not sure what Dodd can do to improve his lot. He's going to need help from the other candidates in order to succeed. Perhaps other candidates will have to flame out or keep wailing on each other so much that voters get sick of all the candidates and leave the untouched Dodd as a new option. Dodd should also call for issues-oriented debates to help him demonstrate his grasp of policy at the expense of making Obama and Edwards look unready for prime time.

Dennis Kucinich: I thought Kucinich did a good job at the debate, as he was clearly unafraid to say things and express positions that the other more viable candidates don't have the political flexibility to say, such as unequivocally supporting gay marriage. He might not be the nominee, but at least he can serve as the liberal conscience for other candidates.

Best moment: "Strength through peace." To Democrats and war-weary independents, that sounds so much more appealing than "peace through strength."

Worst moment: Kucinich seemed a bit too eager to plug that text messaging service to end the war. Anderson Cooper rebuffed him by saying "this was not time for a political ad." Kucinich repeated the text messaging service during his "minivideo," which was a wasted opportunity to generate interest in his campaign. Is Kucinich running to be president, or is he running to end the war in Iraq? As for the slavery reparations question, that was an obvious low moment. However, it wasn't Kucinich's fault simply because the question came from a random citizen and the moderator asked him to respond to it. (Imagine if Clinton had to respond to that...)

Immediate threat: Until the media take him and his positions seriously, Kucinich is going nowhere.

Indispensable ally: His unimposing demeanor makes it difficult for other candidates to attack him. Attacking the "nonviolent, antiwar, liberal pushover" is not a good way to generate positive press about you or your campaign, right?

Where to go from here: If Kucinich keeps holding the other candidates' feet to the fire regarding the war, he may become a kingmaker. Other candidates don't want to engage him because he may become a gadfly candidate to them or because his rhetorical purity may put them on the defensive.

Mike Gravel: He did not do anything but take up valuable time, embarrass himself, and try to take another candidate down with him. His demeanor was angry, overly aggressive, and completely unnecessary. I really don't know what his platform is, as he seems to spend most of his time talking about how "electing the other candidates means maintaining the status quo." So, is he an advocate or a candidate? Or does he only want to lob grenades?

Best moment: In a moment of graciousness, Gravel took the time to thank one of the You Tube questioners for directing a question specifically to him. That was one of the few times when he did not seem to be foaming at the mouth.

Worst moment: Gravel tried to take down Obama unprovoked, but did not have the facts to back it up. This came off ugly and was in bad form.

Immediate threat: Future debate sponsors and organizers will probably take steps to exclude him from future debates. So they are a bigger threat to him than any issue or any candidate.

Where to go from here: Out the exit. Preferably sooner.

If I had to rank the candidates by how well they performed, I'd say the order would be:

1. Joe Biden (maybe he'll finally catch a spark)
2. Bill Richardson (the buzz about his candidacy is growing)
3. Hillary Clinton (she wins by not losing and continues to run out the clock)
4. Barack Obama (storm clouds are on the horizon; is the love affair over?)
5. Dennis Kucinich (his candor is refreshing)
6. John Edwards (once his Iowa support is gone, he's finished)
7. Chris Dodd (voters still don't know who this guy is)
8. Mike Gravel (whatever)

2 comment(s):

Steve Johnson said...

I once found Gravel's ranting amusing, but you are right. Now, it's just getting annoying.

I agree with most of your assessment (you always have great debate analysis, by the way.) The only strong disagreement is with Edwards. To be honest, while I was watching the debate I was thinking to myself that I'm going to have to take another look at this guy. I thought he came across as passionate about the right issues, and his YouTube advertisement was a great response to the criticism on his haircut. But you are right about the comment on Clinton's jacket. I thought is was unprofessional and just stupid.

Great reaction.

Anthony Palmer said...

The haircut video was the most effective of all the candidates' videos. I wonder why he waited so long to deploy that message?

When he started talking about health care, I saw a side of him that I had rarely seen before: genuine passion and anger. But it was not a ranting sort of anger, but rather a sincere apoplexity (if that's even a word). Either way, that came across very sincere, much like the way Biden talked about Darfur and Iraq.

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