A tense evening in Philadelphia, as Sen. Barack Obama found himself consistently on the defensive as he and Sen. Hillary Clinton debated over values, patriotism and his longtime associations with controversial figures. (Transcript) Debates have never been Obama's forte—he excels at prepared speeches and on the campaign stump—and the "result,was arguably one of Mr. Obama’s weakest debate performances," Adam Nagourney at The New York Times. "He at times appeared annoyed."
First thing's first. The questions from the two moderators from ABC News, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous, were very aggressive, but, the questions were not "unfair". They are journalists and did their jobs. Obama is the front runner in the Democratic nomination and will be subjected to much more scrutiny—he has benefited from tremendous press, and, gentle treatment in the CNN and especially MSNBC "debates", which is probably why the "progressive" blogosphere is in a dramatic meltdown after last night's debate. It's almost surrealistic. There never was any similar dramatic outrage over "substance" and "gotcha questions" in the many NBC and MSNBC debates. Fair is fair and we should demand the same standards for all Democrats. It doesn't become any easier in the fall. This is just the beginning.
Some thoughts after the jump.
Obama. In the vetting round, the Illinois senator was forced to defend his explanation of the "bitter/clinging" remarks in San Francisco, his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and, his association with William Ayers, the Chicago progressive activist and professor who once affiliated with the Weather Underground in the 1960s and admitted setting a bomb in the Pentagon and has never apologized. Obama's response on Ayers was inadequate and the Bill Clinton segue was a quantum leap. Former CIA officer and foreign policy blogger Larry Johnson at No Quarter has much more; NYT also has a piece and, ABC News and FOX have been covering Ayers for months. All of these are major issues that resonate with core stereotypes (family, values, liberalism elitism, anti-Americanism, terrorism, etc) about Democrats. As predicted, this is the new Obama narrative, courtesy of the right wing attack machine so you can expect many more questions in weeks to come.
There was also a video question on the flag lapel pin controversy, which, imho, has been asked and answered.
Clinton. The New York senator had to answer for her exaggeration of the Bosnia sniper story. Clinton took a big hit on this one and her numbers tanked. Clinton should have stuck to what she wrote in her book and said as much last night. "On a couple of occasions in the last weeks I just said some things that weren't in keeping with what I knew to be the case and what I had written about in my book. And, you know, I'm embarrassed by it." Clinton should have stopped there, but last night she continued to bob and weaved and try to explain/apologize. Not good, not good, the audience meters spiked. Again, the incident "reinforces" the stereotypes about her (dishonest, evasive) that are fodder for the general election.
Policy. The second half of the debate was much more substantive, albeit tedious. Obama and Clinton were questioned on Iraq, the economy, and, for some reason, were forced to endure a tutorial on fiscal policy. Clinton and Obama pandered on taxes, both promising not to raise new taxes. Obama also subjected to some needless questions on the capital gains tax and payroll tax structure. Clinton and Obama also pandered on Iraq, claiming they would begin to move out troops right away, regardless of the situation on the ground. There were no questions on health care, education, or jobs, or, more importantly, the subprime lending crisis, which is devastating Philadelphia. That was disappointing.
This was like any other debate. Not enough substantive questions, not enough questions on the economy or healthcare, and, too many gotcha questions directed at one candidate, albeit a different one than usual. The debate certainly was watched the Democratic superdelegates who are thinking about the months ahead. It's uncertain how any of this will play out, but, the fact that so many "Democrats" and "progressives" are suddenly concerned about "substance" and "gotcha moments" is very telling.