Seriously, a Pin! Post-Debate Analysis

On that awful, awful debate…

I really feel compelled to respond to that debate that I watched last night on ABC.  There are so many threads of criticism, so I’ll just start at the top and work my down.  To me, that debate was a sad moment for American democracy in general.  The first half of the debate was spent discussing trivial, tabloid-esque issues.  Time was dedicated to the wearing of a lapel pin.  Seriously, a pin!  Is this really what politics has come to?  For a hardcore criticism of the debate on these lines, a criticism that I would totally subscribe to, here’s a good read (link, dailykos.com).  If liberal blogs are not good enough, note that the criticism is coming in from all over the place (link, newsday.com).

The next criticism is the fact that this debate was horrible for the Democratic party.  When the subjects discussed are the stupid ones that ABC, for some reason chose to discuss (I’ll give you two hints: 1. This was the most watched debate in this debate season link, nytimes.com; 2. There were more commercials than I can remember seeing in any other debate I’ve ever watched.  Don’t forget that money is the ultimate media bias), it will be hard for anybody on stage to look good.

Clinton’s strategy at this point, out of desperation and selfishness, is basically to bring up the boogeyman of the Republican attack machine in the general election to show that she should win (classic fear mongering).  In truth, the Republican’s won’t have any attacks that are any different than any attack that the Clinton campaign has launched.

Anytime you hear Clinton or one of her representatives talk up Republican attacks come November, consider the following:

1) Short of Karl Rove, I don’t think there’s anybody around capable of playing dirty politics better than Hillary Clinton and her current campaign.  The Republicans will use the same attacks, but they won’t be as good at it.

2) The Republicans will use the attacks even more than Clinton has used them.  This is true.

3) Right now, Obama has to fight off the same line of attacks from BOTH Clinton and the Republicans.  In the general, one would have to think that Clinton would stop attacking and start defending and supporting Obama (but who knows with her).  His supporters and defenders would double, and I assume that the amount of attackers would remain static (they lose Clinton attacks, gain frequency in Republican attacks).  In other words, it would actually become a fair fight, unlike now.

4) Barack Obama is no Al Gore and he’s no John Kerry.  Such comparisons are laughable.  Obama has a loyal following that Kerry would have died for.  He has charisma that Al Gore would have polluted for.  He’s also faced and defeated strong competition thus far, besting a Clinton campaign whose skill in media manipulation and dirty politics has no equal in either party.  Al Gore, if I recall, had token opposition in the primary.  Kerry had to beat Howard Dean.  Obama has already proven that he can fight off attacks and character assassinations from one of the best (perhaps the best) political teams in our generation.  He also will have far more money than either of those guys had.

5) Does anybody think that the Republicans will be magically unable to offer stupid attacks if Clinton is the nominee?  Does anybody think that there’s any Democratic candidate that exists, in the past, present, and future history of our country, who would be able to slide into the general election without the Republicans harshly attacking them on one issue or another?  If Jesus Christ Himself came back and ran for President as a Democrat, the Republicans would have a book full of material to distort for attack purposes.

This whole “see, the Republicans will be able to attack Obama on something” argument is nonsensical, overwhelmingly shortsighted, and devoid of any critical thought.  They are going to attack whoever their opponent is, WHAT’S YOUR POINT???  If the point relates to how Obama would respond to such attacks (and unsubstantiated fear that he wouldn’t respond well), he’s already shown that he responds very well to them already.  He responded to the Wright situation with a speech that many considered historical in quality and importance (and polls showed public approval link, npr.org).  During the debate, he continually rose above the stupid attacks to offer a better vision of what politics can be.  He’s shown that he can take a punch and rise above stupid attacks.

If you’re feeling like Obama, go on brush your shoulders off…

6) In the general election, a little thing I’d like to call “substantive issues” will once again return (thank God).  A part of the reason that this nomination has been reduced to this crud that we see is because Clinton and Obama overwhelmingly agree on the issues.  Such is obviously not the case once you compare John McCain to either Democrat.  People who accept the boogeyman attack argument have forgotten this. In a country where strong majorities oppose the Iraq war, Obama will be going against the war’s biggest proponent (other than Bush himself).  In a country that is facing major economic problems that our current President is given much blame for, Obama will be going against someone who basically wants to continue the current President’s strategy.  I think these things might just overwhelm discussions about pins.  Americans can be pretty smart if you give them a chance.

My next criticism is the fact that the ABC moderators were extremely harsh on Obama, while really only giving Clinton one harsh question (on Bosnia), with no follow-up.  Don’t take my word for it, if you didn’t see the debate, go read the transcript (link, nytimes.com).  I am wondering what will become of all those claims of media bias that came from Clinton.  In reality, the media has been biased against Obama for weeks now.  Controversies that don’t even relate to who Obama is, but rather to who other people that he knows are, have dominated the media’s attention.  Meanwhile, the Mark Penn/Bill Clinton/Columbia controversy, which goes to heart of the Clinton as an honest person and at the very least to Clinton as an effective manager, got only a couple of days of attention before disappearing into the ether (admittedly, Obama’s decision not to fan the flames on this one much is a part of the reason for this).  Also of note, Clinton has attacked Obama nonstop for the “bitter” comments, and yet, her take on southern working class whites in 1995: “screw ’em.” (link, huffingtonpost.com, 3 sources attest to this).  We will see how much attention this gets relative to the amount of attention that Obama’s comments have gotten.  So far, the difference in coverage has been huge, and Clinton has taken full advantage, this is evident in her extraordinary piling on in this debate.

I do think there’s going to be a blowback on this one though.  Clinton can only be so negative.  Eventually, the Democratic party can’t stand for it, as her negativity will destroy the Democratic party if everybody sits idly by for long enough.  Her ad strategy in Pennsylvania suggests that she’s willing to be as negative as necessary if she thinks it will help her win (link, talkingpointsmemo.com).  I just don’t think she’ll be allowed to get away with this, but I guess we’ll have to see.

Okay, lets get to a couple of the actual exchanges that occurred during the debate.  To me, the following extended quote from the debate provides an excellent snapshot of how the debate was conducted, what kind of candidates Obama and Clinton are, how silly this race has become, and what is really important.  I think it’s a great read:

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator, if you get the nomination, you’ll have to — (applause) — (inaudible).

I want to give Senator Clinton a chance to respond, but first a follow-up on this issue, the general theme of patriotism in your relationships. A gentleman named William Ayers, he was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol and other buildings. He’s never apologized for that. And in fact, on 9/11 he was quoted in The New York Times saying, “I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.”

An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly. Can you explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?

SEN. OBAMA: George, but this is an example of what I’m talking about.

This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He’s not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.

And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn’t make much sense, George.

The fact is, is that I’m also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, who during his campaign once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions.

Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn’s statements? Because I certainly don’t agree with those either.

So this kind of game, in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, is somehow — somehow their ideas could be attributed to me — I think the American people are smarter than that. They’re not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn’t.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I think that is a fair general statement, but I also believe that Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position.

And if I’m not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York, and I would hope to every American, because they were published on 9/11 and he said that he was just sorry they hadn’t done more. And what they did was set bombs and in some instances people died. So it is — you know, I think it is, again, an issue that people will be asking about. And I have no doubt — I know Senator Obama’s a good man and I respect him greatly but I think that this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising.

And it goes to this larger set of concerns about, you know, how we are going to run against John McCain. You know, I wish the Republicans would apologize for the disaster of the Bush-Cheney years and not run anybody, just say that it’s time for the Democrats to go back into the White House. (Laughter, applause.)

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be willing to do that. So we know that they’re going to be out there, full force. And you know, I’ve been in this arena for a long time. I have a lot of baggage, and everybody has rummaged through it for years. (Laughter.) And so therefore, I have, you know, an opportunity to come to this campaign with a very strong conviction and feeling that I will be able to withstand whatever the Republican sends our way.

SENATOR OBAMA: I’m going to have to respond to this just really quickly, but by Senator Clinton’s own vetting standards, I don’t think she would make it, since President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act than me —

AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Applauds.)

MR. GIBSON: Please.

SENATOR OBAMA: — than me serving on a board with somebody for actions that he did 40 years ago.

Look, there is no doubt that the Republicans will attack either of us. What I’ve been able to display during the course of this primary is that I can take a punch. I’ve taken some pretty good ones from Senator Clinton. And I don’t begrudge her for that. That’s part of what the political contest is about.

I am looking forward to having a debate with John McCain, and I think every poll indicates that I am doing just as well, if not better, in pulling together the coalition that will defeat John McCain.

And when it comes to November, and people are going into the polling place, they’re going to be asking, are we going to go through four more years of George Bush economic policies; are we going to go through four more years of George Bush foreign policy?

And if we as Democrats and if I as the nominee have put forward a clear vision for how we’re going to move the country forward, deal with issues like energy dependence, lower gas prices, provide health care, get our troops out of Iraq, that is a debate that I’m happy to have and a debate that I’m confident I can win.

I endorse Barack Obama, and so does the Philadelphia Daily News, in eloquent fashion (link, philly.com).

Now, in responding to what all went down during that debate, Clinton supporters will quickly point out the theory that Obama is merely getting the sort of treatment that Clinton grew accustomed to earlier in the campaign season (no doubt that Clinton got some rough treatment early on, as the frontrunner/ presumptive nominee, but Obama has been getting rough treatment from the media for many weeks now, this is not new).  Specifically, they’ll point to the October 2007 debate as an example of Clinton getting the sort of treatment that Obama got in this recent debate.  Don’t be fooled by that.  It is true that some of the other candidates, notably Obama and John Edwards, ganged up on Hillary in several instances.  But, what were those instances?  Her voting record.  Her incoherent support/opposition of Spitzer’s immigrant driver’s license plan (link, npr.org).  If you don’t believe me, watch the debate and read the transcript yourself (link, nytimes.com).  In other words, Clinton was getting criticized on substantive matters, you know, the sort of stuff that politicians should get criticized for if they make questionable decisions or aren’t being honest.

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