I watched the entirety of the Democratic presidential debate that took place at Dartmouth tonight. Here are a few observations:
First, Chris Matthews seems to have “pregamed” the pregame. If Matthews wasn’t drunk during the lead-up to the debate, as he railed against Barack Obama for not attacking Hillary Clinton harder and Chris Wallace for some offense that wasn’t clear, he did a pretty good imitation. Even Keith Olbermann looked bemused.
Second, Hillary Clinton is trying to run out the clock. She refused to answer a number of questions — whether she would take certain measures to fix Social Security, whether she would commit to stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear power even if it required a preemptive attack to do so, whether she would be comfortable with young children in her family reading in school about a prince who marries a prince.
Other answers and positions clearly were formulated with an eye towards the general election — her willingness to keep some troops in Iraq and have them conduct counter-terrorism missions, her support for a Senate resolution co-sponsored by Joe Lieberman declaring certain Iranian units to be terrorists. I think Clinton is correct in believing that she need only run out the clock. However, if her unwillingness to answer questions she doesn’t like persists in the general election, it will be a liability.
Third, among the serious contenders, Barack Obama provided the most thoughtful and (for the most part) direct answers. In the context of a Democratic presidential debate, that’s a nice way of saying he lost.
Fourth, unlike Obama, John Edwards tried hard to run through the opening Hillary created as she looked ahead to the general election. At times he was deft (as when he gently chided Clinton for being willing to have our remaining forces in Iraq engage in counter-terrorism). At times he was shrill (as when he tried to defend his expensive haircut and receipt of hedge fund money by crying several times “look at what I’ve done”). If anyone made headway tonight, it was Edwards.
Fifth, part of me hopes that Edwards did make headway because he’s too phony for anyone but a committed Democrat not to see through. After the slick talking demagogue said that, as president, he would take away the health care of members of Congress if they don’t pass a bill providing universal coverage, Tim Russert reminded Edwards that in 2004 he said we can’t afford universal coverage. Edwards stammered that things had changed since then. Did he mean that the great Bush economy has made universal coverage affordable, or did he mean he’s running as a leftist in this cycle?
Sixth, the highlight of the evening came when Biden warned that if Hillary is the candidate, a lot of unpleasant “stuff” from the Clinton administration will come back into play. As the camera showed Hillary’s face going glacial, Biden added that he was referring to policy stuff. The glacier did not melt, but after a few moments a painted smile appeared on it.
Seventh, the sound-bite of the evening was probably when Hillary seemed to reject the view of an unnamed guest on Meet The Press who acknowledged that if we captured the number three guy in al Qaeda and that person knew the whereabouts of a bomb that was going to explode in three days, we might need to beat the information out of him. The unnamed guest, of course, turned out to be Bill Clinton. After a brief pause, Hillary said, “well he’s not up here right now.” She then added, with smile (real this time), that she would have to talk to him about the matter.
Clinton’s substantive answer was another evasion, though. She did not categorically state that there could be no torture in this situation, just that we can’t have torture “as a matter of policy.”
This is the Clinton debate strategy in a nutshell — give non-answers or cagey answers when necessary and use her new-found sense of humor and/or attacks on President Bush in the hope that people won’t notice. It should get her through the primaries and it may get back to the White House.
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