(NOTE: This post is about the Democratic debate that took place in Nevada in November 2007. For my analysis of the Democratic debate that took place in Nevada in January 2008, click here.)
As promised, here is my analysis of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas last night:
Hillary Clinton: Clinton clearly did her homework and it paid off for her. In addition to squashing the negative news cycles she has been enduring for the past two weeks, she regained her momentum, shifted the negative stories to her rivals, and made no obvious mistakes. But most importantly, she spoke with confidence and seemed to be in control.
Before going any further, it is important to note that Clinton seemed to have home field advantage at the debate. The audience was clearly biased towards her, as they booed John Edwards and Barack Obama when they attacked her on occasion. CNN should have done a better job of establishing a few ground rules prior to the debate because this made the debate seem more like a pep rally at times. It also seemed like she had a heckler or a ringer in the audience that gave Obama a hard time while he was answering a question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. How Clinton would have responded if she had to deal with these situations is a mystery.
She also benefited from fairly gentle treatment from the moderators, at least in comparison to the other candidates. Barack Obama was questioned particularly aggressively by Wolf Blitzer. Hillary Clinton's final question was about diamonds and pearls. There were rumors that the Clinton camp had been intimidating CNN and Wolf Blitzer, and I can't help but wonder if these rumors were indeed true after watching the debate. She should consider herself exceptionally lucky.
As for her performance, she was not afraid to go on offense. She methodically dismantled Barack Obama and John Edwards when it came to talking about health care, trade with China, and her "double-talk." And as an added bonus, she was able to put down her rivals and pivot to running against Republicans, thus reminding voters of the inevitability storyline that had been developing: "When it came time to step up on health care, [Obama] chose not to do so. Republicans will not vacate the White House without a fight. We need someone who can fight!"
That's how you do it.
John Edwards and Barack Obama certainly think Clinton is most vulnerable on Iran, but she has clearly found a way to be a hawk, a dove, cautious, and tough at the same time. Consider this paraphrased quote: "I oppose rushing to war and want to stress that Bush has no legal authority to go to war. We need aggressive diplomacy and a ratcheting down of tensions. But we must prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. It's important to remember that the Iranian Army is a terrorist group because they are providing training and weapons to people in Iraq who are attacking our soldiers. I oppose war with Iran, but we have to get tough."
How does an opponent respond to this?!
This is not to say that Clinton didn't have her flaws. There were still a few times when she had trouble giving a yes or no answer, such as talking about the success of NAFTA and supporting merit-based pay for teachers. However, because of the gift to her from Obama (who got bogged down by the same question that had dogged her earlier), people will be more likely to remember his inability to answer yes or no than hers.
As for the gender card, she was given a softball question about this from CNN newcomer Campbell Brown and she turned it into an easy home run that allowed her to play the gender card while saying she doesn't need to. The best way for the other candidates to deal with this is to simply not talk about it because her gender will always be a subtext of her campaign and they really can't attack her because of it. A lot of people are excited about the prospect of the first female president, and women make up a majority of the Democratic base.
Interestingly, Clinton praised rival Joe Biden again during this debate when it came to talking about Pakistan and Supreme Court appointments. When she did this at an earlier debate, people wondered if Biden was trying to be her vice president or secretary of state, but Biden shot that idea down. In light of the tightening Iowa polls, could it be that Clinton views Biden as an ally in that he could siphon off support from Obama and Edwards? Edwards stands the most to lose from a possible Biden ascendancy because Obama is clearly the change candidate, not Edwards. Edwards can't run as the experience candidate because that's Clinton. This means Edwards is left with the outsider mantle. Will Biden's competence trump Edwards' outsider status? Keep in mind, Edwards has probably driven up his own personal negatives to the point of no return because of how aggressive he had been towards Clinton in this debate and the one in Philadelphia. By praising Biden, she could be raising his stock value in an attempt to blunt Edwards.
Barack Obama: Obama was inexplicably unprepared to answer the very same question that Clinton got tripped up on at the last debate in Philadelphia. After hammering Clinton for not being able to offer a clear answer on whether illegal aliens should be allowed to obtain driver's licenses, he did the exact same thing he criticized her for. His advisers should have done a better job of prepping him for this debate because the candidates and their handlers had to know this issue would come up.
Obama's response talked about his past votes in the Illinois state legislature, the need for public safety, cracking down on employers, and border security. And the more he extended his response, the worse he looked. Hillary Clinton had to be licking her chops when this happened because it immediately transferred the yoke of evasion from her to him as far as the media were concerned.
This question matters because it will provide a counternarrative to his otherwise passable performance and make it harder for him to pound away at Clinton's evasiveness. In his very first comments of the night, he scolded Clinton by saying "people are looking for straight answers to tough questions." In light of Obama's own inability to do this, this charge loses its potency.
To be fair, Obama did call the driver's license question a distracting wedge issue. He said that "undocumented workers don't come to America to drive. They come here to work." Notice how he was trying so hard to keep referring to "illegal immigrants" as "undocumented workers." This nomenclature will undoubtedly be a major issue next year.
Obama did contrast this low moment with a solid home run, however. When asked about where to store nuclear waste (including nuclear waste from Illinois), he was having trouble giving a direct answer because of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) syndrome. No politician ever wants to be forced to defend storing nuclear waste in any voters' communities, so it's understandable that Obama could not give a firm answer to this question. Wolf Blitzer tried to pin him down and that's when Obama turned a losing issue into great television. "I reject the notion that we can't meet our energy challenges." This led to a strong reminder of one of the main appeals of Obama: inspiration.
In contrast with this light moment, Obama also took off the gloves and engaged Clinton directly a few times. Their first sharp exchange happened immediately after the debate started and was about whose health care plan covered more people. This exchange was largely bluster. Joe Biden put an end to that spat by putting things back in perspective.
The second meaningful exchange was about Social Security and adjusting payroll taxes. Obama's most memorable attack line was "6% of Americans is not the middle class! It's the upper class! This is what I would expect from a Mitt Romney or a Rudy Giuliani!" However, this comparison to Giuliani and Romney led to a chorus of boos from the audience which was clearly partisan.
One final note: On Iraq, Obama said the troops could be removed from Iraq within 16 months. That is a direct contrast with what he said at an earlier debate in which he could not guarantee that all the troops would be out of Iraq by the end of his first presidential term in 2013. For any politician who dares to run an attack ad on Obama criticizing him for flip-flopping, here's your ad material.
In short, I believe Obama has a lot of potential, but this debate showed that in many regards, he is still a novice politician. His lack of preparation on the driver's license issue was inexplicable. He needs to be more adept at taking advantage of his opponents' vulnerabilities when they arise in debates and avoid setting himself up for accusations of hypocrisy, especially since he has missed several critical votes in the Senate. The moderator reminded Obama that he didn't vote on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. Obama said "that was a pitfall of running for president" and acknowledged that this was "a mistake." Of course, that opened himself up to be attacked on his "judgment," but fortunately for Obama, nobody did. These are the kinds of things he needs to work on.
John Edwards: I get the sense that the deck was stacked against Edwards last night. Clinton and Obama were placed next to each other and their podiums were located at the center of the stage. John Edwards was placed off to the side in West Berlin and was separated from Clinton and Obama by Chris Dodd. I don't know how the podiums had been assigned, but it is quite coincidental that the "Big Two" were both given center stage positions next to each other--again.
Having said that, Edwards also made some foolish choices that probably ended his campaign hopes. He is generally running third nationally and is fading in Iowa, so Edwards obviously has to take a few more chances. This would explain why he was probably the most aggressive candidate on stage last night, but it blew up in his face.
Exhibit A: Edwards launched a hard attack on Clinton criticizing her for her contradictions on Iraq, Iran, Social Security, and fair and open government. However, Clinton deftly retorted that "Democrats shouldn't throw mud" and that "attacks should at least be accurate, rather than something out of the GOP playbook." This exchange made Edwards look mean. It also probably didn't go over too well with women. Clinton then reminded voters that Edwards had opposed universal health care earlier. Talk about taking one step forward and three steps back!
Exhibit B: Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked all the candidates if they would agree to support the Democratic nominee, regardless of whoever she (or he) may be. Edwards was the first candidate to receive this question. His response: "Is that a planted question?" Ugh. Needless to say, the only person laughing at this quip was him. This remark exposed Edwards as childish, which also happens to be the exact opposite of presidential.
Exhibit C: All the candidates had to field a question about dealing with Pakistan and its state of emergency. John Edwards had the unenviable task of having to answer this question after Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, both of whom are immensely more qualified on foreign policy than him. Biden talked about how he had talked with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto before President George Bush did. Bill Richardson talked about the importance of understanding Pakistani election history. John Edwards tried to keep up with them, but could only address Pakistan using broad statements like "we must do everything we can to ensure a stable Pakistan" and "my goal is to rid the world of nuclear weapons." This direct contrast potentially unmasks Edwards as an inexperienced lightweight while elevating Biden and Richardson.
Exhibit D: Dennis Kucinich also drew blood on Edwards when the issue of Chinese product safety came up. Kucinich railed against Edwards for initially voting to liberalize trade with China, "especially since he was a trial lawyer." Edwards took issue with this and said he "didn't know what being a trial lawyer had to do with this." Kucinich then deadpanned, "product liability."
Embarrassed, Edwards then tried to cut his losses by chuckling "that's very cute, Dennis" while trying not to look at him. I haven't seen many people mention this exchange in their debate analyses, but I personally think this was fatal because it showed that Edwards was guilty of doing the exact same thing he had been criticizing Clinton for: taking two stands on the issues and not being a true agent of change. He tried to explain the apparent contradiction by saying that he's not taking multiple positions on issues at the same time, unlike Clinton. I don't think his explanation will resonate with undecideds or soft supporters though.
Exhibit E: Edwards said all candidates should be held to the same standard and that "voters should know the differences without it being attack-oriented." Is this guy serious? When Edwards said this, he was actually booed by the crowd. The crowd's behavior was in bad form, but the fact that Edwards had the gall to imply that he's not "attack-oriented" suggests that he thinks voters aren't paying attention.
To Edwards' credit, he did offer a strong answer on the issue of Supreme Court judges. He talked about the need to have "judges who have a backbone" and placed it in the context of growing up in the South during segregation. That was a strong response that reminded voters of his appeal to Red State voters (most of whom live in the South) who remember the societal advances that came from "judicial activism."
Unfortunately for Edwards though, he is losing momentum and fast. Iowans don't like nasty politics. 2004 losers Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt found that out the hard way.
Bill Richardson: Richardson turned in a stronger performance at this debate compared to previous ones, but he still seemed to underwhelm when considering his extensive resume. He did not really join in the food fight between Obama, Edwards, and Clinton, so that allowed him to remain above the fray. The problem with Bill Richardson, however, is that his policy views don't seem to match what you would expect given his record. Consider his very first opportunity to speak: "John Edwards wants to start a class war. Barack Obama wants to start a generational war. Hillary Clinton's plans don't seem to end the Iraq War. All I want to do is give peace a chance."
This line was obviously rehearsed, but the main problem with it is that this is the type of rhetoric you would expect to hear from an antiwar liberal like Dennis Kucinich, not a pro-gun Western Democrat executive who has gone toe-to-toe with Saddam Hussein and the North Koreans. Why Richardson chose not to run as a moderate on Iraq is one of the great mysteries of his campaign. For moderate and conservative Democrats who worry that the Democratic Party is being pulled too far to the left, there was a tremendous opportunity for Richardson to fill the void that was created by the exits of Mark Warner and Evan Bayh. But he has chosen to run to the left on Iraq, thus allowing Hillary Clinton to occupy the center all by herself without ceding the left entirely to Obama and Edwards. Centrist voters are less likely to want a quick withdrawal from Iraq with a timetable, so this segment of voters is probably not big on Richardson's Iraq policy even if they do agree with him on taxes and guns.
Anyway, on the other issues discussed, some of Richardson's ideas seemed quite popular, especially when it came to education. Teachers would surely love to have a minimum salary of $40,000 and parents would love to have full-day kindergarten. He also demonstrated a solid understanding of foreign policy when he talked about Pakistan's elections and voting patterns.
Unfortunately, Richardson made one terrible political mistake that Republicans will undoubtedly pummel him with should he win the nomination. When asked if human rights were more important than national security (this was a proxy question about torture), he said that human rights were more important. Richardson also said the surge in Iraq is not working. Left wing Democrats may like those answers, but smart Democrats probably winced in discomfort. This plays right into Republican rhetoric about the "defeatist Democrats" being soft on terrorism and placing the rights of terrorists above the security of Americans.
What will the fallout from these remarks be? Well, Richardson's chances of winning the nomination are already slim. People who remember how he rushed to Clinton's defense in previous debates thought he was angling to be her vice president. In light of these remarks about national security, that's not going to happen. Clinton's electoral math is already complicated enough because of her high personal negatives. Giving Republicans another weapon that plays into one of their few remaining strengths is a risk Clinton would be better off not taking.
Richardson also had better find a more effective response to the question of illegal immigration. When asked what he would do to combat it, he said he would tell the Mexican government to "give jobs to your people!" This response did not seem sufficiently serious. Just like Mitt Romney has to be careful with the religion question, Barack Obama has to be careful with the race question, and Hillary Clinton has to be careful with the gender question, Bill Richardson has to be careful with the illegal immigration question. People who had doubted Richardson because of this very issue likely were not pleased.
Joe Biden: If I had to choose a single winner from the debate, it would be Joe Biden. In the limited time he had to speak, he struck a good balance between humor, seriousness, directness, and empathy. The clamoring over Hillary Clinton's "evasiveness" had cast a pall over all the Democrats because of their tendency to not answer direct questions with simple answers, presumably because they don't want to damage their prospects in a general election. But Joe Biden has become the straight-shooting statesman in the field. And the more Clinton, Obama, and Edwards kick up dirt, the more that elevates Biden.
The debate got off to a rough start, as Obama and Clinton fought with each other over not being straight with voters, who the true agent of change was, and whose health care plan covered more people. I thought this debate was going to be one of the nastiest ones yet until Biden got a chance to inject a bit of sanity and maturity into the dialogue. He correctly said that most Americans don't really care about the petty squabbles that have taken up so much oxygen. Instead, they care about paying their mortgages, their kids running into drug dealers, and their family members being sent off to Iraq. And that's when he had one of his best lines of the night: "It's not about experience. It's not about change. It's about action." Then he immediately pivoted to the importance of the next president being able to deal with the high stakes game of dealing with Pakistan and Russia. As he was speaking, the camera switched to the crowd and I saw a lot of people sitting there nodding their heads in agreement.
Biden later gave what was perhaps the most thorough analysis of the Pakistani problem that I have heard in any debate so far, regardless of party. When he talked about the importance of winning over Pakistan's middle class, he displayed a level of depth on this subject that the other candidates all had trouble matching when they were tasked with following up on his remarks.
Like Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, Biden didn't really get a lot of chances to speak at the debate. However, he was quite adept at maximizing these opportunities. He often began his statements with self-deprecating humor that woke up the audience and captured their attention. When he received his first question about 15 minutes into the debate, he started off by lampooning the lack of questions he had been receiving in these debates. "Oh no! Please! Don't make me speak! You don't want to hear from me! No, no, no!" The audience was roaring with laughter upon hearing that. But as soon as the laughter died down, he was able to capitalize on their now undivided attention with his seriousness and maturity. That was an effective way of turning a disadvantage into a great opportunity.
The forcefulness and directness of his responses also likely pleased the audience. When he said that Bush should be impeached if he were to attack Iran without congressional approval and that Republicans also don't like the situation in Iraq, but are simply too afraid of challenging Bush, he seemed more sincere in his frankness than the leading candidates did with their longwinded responses that were often taken from their stump speeches. For voters seeking straight talk and firmness, Biden's words likely had some resonance.
Chris Dodd: One really has to feel sorry for Dodd. He has never really gotten a fair shake in any of the debates thus far, and this debate was no exception. He barely got any chances to participate and was cut off before he could finish his thoughts. His strongest moment came when he was asked about education and merit-based pay for teachers. Dodd said that excellence could be defined by teachers volunteering to serve in lower income and forgotten neighborhoods. This is an honest liberal argument that counters the conservative argument of taking funds away from underperforming schools that are often located in these lower income areas.
Dodd also received a question about the relationship between illegal immigration and terrorism. The question was asked by what appeared to be a Latino. Dodd burst into fluent Spanish, much to the delight of many people in the audience. After all, Nevada and Las Vegas have sizeable Spanish-speaking populations. However, as Dodd continued addressing the questioner in Spanish, I got the sense that the rest of the audience became a bit uncomfortable because they could not understand what he was saying. (For the record, he said he had served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.) Look for immigration and the idea of English as an "official" vs. "common" language making the rounds as a campaign wedge issue in the general election.
The biggest problem with Dodd's candidacy now is Joe Biden. Dodd can match Biden in terms of experience, intellect, and grasp of foreign policy. He demonstrated his understanding of the complexities of foreign policy when he talked about why we couldn't afford to alienate Pakistan despite Musharraf's recent crackdown on democracy because that's our only way into Afghanistan. He also displayed pragmatism and thoughtfulness when talking about the danger of establishing litmus tests for the Supreme Court nominees. Dodd warned that liberal litmus tests under a Democratic president today could turn into conservative litmus tests under a Republican president tomorrow. These types of comments suggest that Dodd is quite wise and capable. However, he is not using his limited talk time as efficiently as Biden is. After breaking out in the Philadelphia debate, he somewhat got lost in the shuffle tonight. Of all the so-called "second-tier" candidates, Dodd is the most obscure.
Dennis Kucinich: Kucinich was visibly irritated tonight and justifiably so. He did not get a lot of chances to participate in the debate and when he actually did receive a question, the moderator commonly interrupted him. Despite his limited opportunities to participate, he did make a few strong points. Kucinich had no allies on the stage last night and commonly turned his fire on them. On the issues of Iraq, the Patriot Act, NAFTA, and trade with China, he harshly criticized his rivals for being on the wrong side of those issues in the beginning only to want to change those positions later after the issues did not work out as they had hoped. This statement alone lent Kucinich a great deal of credibility. After all, this "loony UFO-seeing antiwar liberal crackpot" is indeed on the right side of public opinion on all of these issues and maintained these positions even when it wasn't politically popular to do so.
Unfortunately for Kucinich, he was often marginalized by the moderators. One of the questions was supposedly a "down the line" question for all the candidates to answer. Clinton, Richardson, Biden, Obama, Edwards, and Dodd all got a bite of the apple, but before Kucinich got his chance, the moderator switched to another question which left Kucinich literally flailing his hands and saying, "hello? Hello? You forgot me!" Yes, Kucinich is probably the longest of longshots in the Democratic field, but ignoring him at the debates you invite him to is in very bad form. It shows a lack of respect for him as a candidate and a lack of respect for his ideas. Consider this angry response to a question about illegal immigration: "There aren't illegal human beings. I take exception to the way you phrase that question." While this view might not be one that is commonly shared, it at least deserves to be discussed. But he never got the chance to do so.
Prediction #1: John Edwards will not win Iowa. And because Edwards needs to win Iowa in order to advance to New Hampshire, he will drop out of the race. Edwards is starting to look like a desperate college basketball team full of seniors that is trailing by 15 points with two minutes to go in the NCAA Tournament game that will send them to the Final Four. What do basketball teams do in this situation? They keep fouling and sending the other team to the free throw line in an attempt to stop the clock, hope the other team throws up a brick, and make up their point deficit when they get the ball back. Of course, all this does is lead to jeers from the other team because everybody knows the game is over. John Edwards is going to need help from another candidate in the form of an unforced error in order to salvage any chance at the nomination. But at this point, it looks like he's in danger of placing third or even being overtaken by one of the "second-tier" candidates. Should Edwards' campaign come to an end, look for him to endorse Obama because they both offer the same message of bold and exciting change.
Prediction #2: Joe Biden is the most credible so-called "second tier" candidate. If anyone wants to bet on a dark horse to place in the top 3 in Iowa, Biden is where you want to place your money. The 7-10 is an independent and nonpartisan blog, but it seems quite obvious to me that Biden is the strongest, best qualified candidate in the Democratic field. The media generally don't focus much on anyone not named Obama, Clinton, or Edwards on the Democratic side of the ledger, but when they do, it's usually Biden whose name pops up. MSNBC's Chuck Todd seems to have caught on. And it seems like readers of the Washington Post and New York Times have also caught on, judging from the comments they posted about the debate here (WaPo) and here (NYT). Do not be surprised if Richardson and Dodd instruct their supporters to throw their support behind Biden in the event that their own campaigns come to an end because those two candidates are far closer to Biden in terms of the experience and maturity they bring to the table than they are to Obama and Edwards. I can't help but wonder if Dodd, Biden, and Richardson harbor a bit of resentment towards Obama, Edwards, and even Clinton because even though they have superior resumes, they have been totally ignored by the media. So perhaps they have an implicit understanding that they will look out for each other for experience's sake.
(NOTE: This post is about the Democratic debate that took place in Nevada in November 2007. For my analysis of the Democratic debate that took place in Nevada in January 2008, click here.)