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Debates ’08

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The Old Man and the Plumber. | Enough.

“Mr. Osborne, may I be excused? My brain is full.” Have you ever seen that old Far Side cartoon? That basically sums up my overpowering sentiment during last week’s third and (mercifully) final presidential debate at Hofstra University. [Transcript.] Now, I think I usually enjoy following politics more than the next guy, but something about that debate gave me the urge to run screaming into the hills (or at least flip over to the NCLS.)…Hence, one of the reasons for the tardiness of this post. I didn’t switch over to baseball — My fellow prisoners, I sat through the whole durned thing — but the event still left a sour taste in my mouth.

Why such an adverse reaction? I mean, McCain’s campaign has been making disturbingly stupid arguments aimed at the lowest common denominator for awhile now. What’s another 90 minutes of it? Well, for one, the endless paeans to that ostensibly most American of Americans, “Joe the Plumber” (nee “Sam the Not-a-Plumber“), got seriously old. Now, I know we’re all meant to enjoy wallowing in our appreciation for the “real” Americans — as opposed to us egg-headed surrender-monkey lefty types — but perhaps we can find a genuine, working-class Joe to discuss next time who isn’t yet another obvious McCain plant. (And bonus points if they’re not tied to the Keatings.) The McCain team has already force-fed us one one fake working class hero in Sarah Palin. Piling on another one at this point is really pushing it past my (admittedly low) threshold for right-leaning, poor-little-rich-folk. (That being said, I’ll concede that the McCain camp could probably really use a good plumber right now, backed up in swill as it is.)

And, hey, speaking of seriously old, McCain’s “Crotchety Old Man” routine was jacked up to eleven the whole night, making his usual indefensible contentions that much more irritating. What with all the hemming and hawing and scroonchy faces McCain was making throughout, he made the sighing-Gore of 2000 seem a model of forbearance. (Conversely, I thought Obama’s slightly bemused smile, which seemed to suggest that he was getting as sick of all the sideshows as we were, spoke highly of his presidential temperament. In this day and age, a sense of irony about the idiocies of media-driven politics is not a bad thing.) In short, the mythical maverick was a complete mess last Wednesday. Endlessly spewing contrivances and inanities about William Ayers, socialism, and/or the dangers of eloquence, McCain got himself so bizarrely worked up and angry during the debate that I thought he might set off his Life Alert.

If I sound a bit glib, well, I apologize. Just as I eventually grew tired of the inanities of the Clinton campaign, which lingered on for months after its fate was mathematically sealed, I’ve lost my patience with the sad remnants of the right-wing freak show attending John McCain at this point. This is not to say this election is in the bag, and we can now just sit back and play the Fill the Cabinet game — Far from it. (Unlike the primaries, there’re no points on the scoreboard just yet, and who really wants to wake up a few Wednesdays from now with a President-elect McCain?) But the GOP’s Hail Mary strategy has gotten so pungent and idiotic at this point that I’m hard-pressed to treat them with anything but contempt.

Serving on a Republican-financed education committee with an old Weatherman does not make one a terrorist, and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy is not the solution to every economic problem. What’s more, repeating these two obviously stupid contentions over and over again, more and more loudly, does not make them any less false. End of story. If that’s all the McCain team has got, which would seem to be the case, then it’s time for them to get swept away into the dustbin of history like they deserve. Hey, news flash to the right: We tried governance along the lines of your idiotic talking points, and look where it got us? It’s time for a change.

Second Verse, Same as the First.

Well, you know, Sen. McCain, in the last debate and today, again, suggested that I don’t understand. It’s true. There are some things I don’t understand. I don’t understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us. That was Sen. McCain’s judgment and it was the wrong judgment.

As you know, the second of three presidential debates is now in the books. [Transcript.] And, while it’s still way too early to put this election in the fridge — there’s a lot of crucial get-out-the-vote work to be done first, and we all saw how that turned out last time ’round — we nevertheless seem to be moving away from the closely divided America of 2000 and 2004 and fast approaching an contest similar to Bill Clinton’s relatively smooth re-election of 1996. That year, the nation ignored the continued haranguing of an aging war hero about cultural matters to back the candidate with a clearly better grasp on both the economy and the way Americans really live. By all reliable accounts, Sen. Obama, who won the evening handily last night, is the Clinton candidate this time around, and it seems to be helping him across the board.

Sen. Obama not only seemed to have a clearer grasp on the causes, consequences of, and potential remedies for our current economic travails last night, he came across as more competent, more discerning, more likable, and more presidential throughout. Meanwhile, for all McCain-Palin’s wallowing in the tired old culture war over the past few days, the Senator from Arizona seemingly left all of his new favorite talking points in his other suit. And, while desperately needing some kind, any kind, of game-changer last night, McCain instead just puttered around the town hall muttering the same stale GOP platitudes — he’ll raise your taxes! he’s won’t keep you safe! — that didn’t get the job done the first time ’round. In short, let’s not count our chickens just yet — we’ve got one more of these next week, and three weeks thereafter to keep the pressure on. But, right now, it’s looking pretty good, folks.

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations.

To be honest, I don’t have all that much to say about last night’s lone vice-presidential debate in St. Louis, as I think the event speaks for itself. The general consensus congealing today is that Joe Biden won the debate, which he obviously did, but that Sarah Palin performed better than expected. Well, I guess she did, given that everyone was pretty much expecting another embarrassing and hard-to-watch Couric-style meltdown. But, remove that exceedingly low bar, and we still find ourselves confronted with a fundamentally unqualified and frighteningly obtuse candidate for the vice-presidency, one who has no business getting anywhere near the Oval Office, let alone only the heartbeat of a 72-year-old cancer survivor away.

Biden was Biden — a bit wonky and/or self-aggrandizing at times, but clearly knowledgable about the issues and cognizant of the struggles that working people in America face, both as a result of the daily vagaries of the Dubya economy and of awful, unforeseen circumstances that can loom at a moment’s notice. (Imho, his emotion-filled nod to the tragedy in his past was a far more authentic moment than any of the “Aw shucks, I’m just a Wasilla hockey mom” patter emanating from Gov. Palin over the course of the evening.) If anything, I think Biden might’ve erred slightly on the side of gallantry, since Palin seemingly held no qualms about regurgitating easily refutable lies (Obama raised taxes on the poor, Obama voted against funding the troops, Biden supports McCain’s Iraq position — all hooey) throughout the evening. But, all in all, BIden definitely did himself and the ticket credit last night, and I expect he helped to solidify further Obama’s lead in the polls among independents.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, had the immediately recognizable air of the student who fills the air with digressions, non-sequiturs, and the occasional remembered idea in order to deflect attention from the fact that he or she didn’t really do the reading and doesn’t really understand the concepts being discussed. Even with Biden and moderator Gwen Ifill letting Palin slide on all sorts of evasiveness, the Governor often seemed scarily out of her depth whenever anything but energy policy was being discussed. (Her discussion of the Constitution and the vice-presidency was particularly galling.) As Paul Begala noted on CNN during the postgame, we already tried the whole “elevating the average Joe” thing with eight years of Dubya, and it’s turned out to be a miserable failure. And, while excellence may sadly be a rare commodity among our elected officials, I don’t think we the people are asking for too much when we expect basic competence from our leaders. Take away the memories of the Couric implosion, and Gov. Palin still failed to hurdle even that depressingly low threshold last night. Simply put, she wouldn’t be qualified to lead this nation even in the best of times. At it is, she’s a risk we can’t afford to take.

Round One: Obama by Decision.

“John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. The war started in 2003…You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni. And you were wrong.”

I doubt y’all missed it (even if the ratings were surprisingly low.) Nonetheless, Senators Obama and McCain held their first of three debates Friday night in Mississippi, ostensibly on foreign policy matters (although the economic situation on Wall Street took up the first half-hour.) [Transcript.] And the verdict? Well, to no one’s surprise, I’m going to go with Obama on this one. I’m just not going to pretend to be as fair and balanced as John King, David Gergen, and the other seemingly randomly selected poobahs of our Fourth Estate (who was the Aussie guy holding court next to Christine Amanpour?), who went out of their way on CNN to convince me that McCain seemed knowledgable, spry, and at ease during this event. Nope, I think I’ll side with the polls, which have a cool, level-headed, and magnanimous Sen. Obama winning the event handily.

The thing is, even more than with Sen. Hillary Clinton, whom I agreed with most of the time on the issues even when I disagreed completely with her GOP-lite campaign tactics, I just can’t take John McCain at all seriously at this point, and particularly after both Palin and the non-suspension suspension. So, when McCain tries to tout a career ostensibly spent in the service of congressional ethics, my inelastic brain just keeps thinking “Uh…Keating 5?” Anybody watching the past few years knows that McCain was as AWOL in the fight against Boss DeLay as he has been in countering Dubya these past two terms. And, whatever happened to McCain since 2000, speaking-truth-to-power is not something that comes readily to him anymore, if it ever did. So most of his early “I’m a proven maverick” speel Friday night fell on deaf ears from jump street in this household, and thus I can’t speak to how it might’ve played to those still-undecideds out there willing to buy into his craven sham.

That being said, I had a sense while watching — and the polls seem to bear this out — that McCain was making a critical error with his oft-repeated “Sen. Obama doesn’t understand” routine. That might’ve worked if Obama had seemed greener up there next to McCain, or if Obama was as inarticulate and incompetent as, say, Sarah Palin. But as it was, Sen. Obama came across as unruffled, competent, and conversant on all the issues the mythical maverick tried to paint him as naive on (and/or lie about.) And thus the strategy (or was it a tactic?), imho, backfired massively. Instead, McCain — missing the soft touch of Ronald Reagan, who turned age to his advantage against Mondale in 1984 with a joke and a smile — basically came across as a cantankerous old coot, dripping with undeserved contempt toward that damn whippersnapper in his yard.

It’s mainly for this reason that I think, however much the debate is being painted as a draw by the punditariat, Obama came out the clear victor: Sen. Obama did not seem callow or inexperienced in the slightest, but lordy did McCain — squinting, smirking, and drowning in derision — come across as aged. And I may be wrong about this, but I just don’t think the Old Man Withers strategy plays with the undecides. I know that many lefties out there wanted to see a more forceful Obama on the attack Friday night, but I don’t think that was his mission: It was more important that he, like Kennedy in 1960, seemed presidential, level-headed, and the very opposite of the risky gamble that the McCain folks would try to make him seem. In that, I think, he succeeded, particularly in contrast to the snarky old man standing across from him. Advantage Obama.

Stop them before they debate again.

You don’t need The Weathermen to know which way the wind blows: This thing is over, and has been for weeks and weeks now. But, ABC held a debate tonight in Philadelphia anyway, and, man, it was a tough slog. [Transcript.] Moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos endlessly trafficked in inanities. (The Weather Underground? Really?) Sen. Clinton found no level she couldn’t passive-aggressively sink beneath: Cringeworthy throughout, she name-dropped Farrakhan and channeled 9iu11iani whenever possible (see, for example, her answers on Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, and she got in Ahmadinejad’s recent remarks as well.) And Sen. Obama seemed tired, a bit rusty, and, after 45 shallow minutes of idiotic gotcha, (justifiably) ticked. (But I thought he still came through in the clutch anyway.)

The only news made tonight? ABC is rather terrible at this whole debate thing. Tonight was basically a fiasco. From Stephanopoulos questioning Obama on flag pins to the tut-tutting about affirmative action to George getting questions from Sean Hannity to Gibson trying to wrest a “no new taxes” pledge from the candidates, virtually every minute tonight was occupied with trite Republican nonsense. Oh, and Gibson’s dim remark at the Manchester debate that two-professor families make $200,000 a year was not a fluke. Apparently, the guy knows less about the economy than John McCain. Tonight he informed us that there “are a heck of a lot of people” making between $97,000 and $200,000 these days. If by “heck of a lot” you mean 14% of the US, well, ok. But some might consider 1 in 7 a rather small minority of the total population, and thus argue that our tax policy should keep the other, more-likely-to-be-struggling 6 out of 7 in mind. Sheesh…less than a week and our friends in the pundit world have already abandoned their newfound blue-collar bitterness.

At any rate, no news or game-changers to speak of. Sen. Obama is still our nominee, Sen. Clinton is still grappling with that fact. If you didn’t watch this tonight, you chose wisely. Update: Having run ABC’s gauntlet of idiocy, Obama brushes his shoulders off, puts distractions on notice, and says no to more debates.

The Last Debate.

The 20th and (hopefully) final round of the Democratic debate was tonight in Cleveland, Ohio. [Transcript.] Once again, no real gamechangers to mention, and thus, momentum-wise, Sen. Obama came out on top. (I thought he came out on top anyway, but am willing to concede I’m not the best judge of this sort of thing.) I don’t have a lot to add at this point: We always seem to cover the same basic issues in these debates, and Obama was Obama, Clinton was Clinton, and (sigh) Russert was Russert. Rinse and repeat.

That being said, I do think Sen. Clinton’s campaign would have been better served by having last Thursday’s debate performance tonight, even if some people construed her closing as a valedictory. Perhaps it plays better to undecideds looking for a fighter above all else, but I thought this was perhaps Clinton’s weakest debate performance since last October, when she tied herself in knots over drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants. Two particularly cringeworthy moments: 1) Sen. Clinton’s whining about the question order, which drew boos from the crowd and seemed remarkably petty, and 2) Sen. Clinton trying to tar Obama as weak on Farrakhan, and — thanks to Obama drawing attention to her parsing — ending up looking ridiculous. (FWIW, Sen. Obama addressed Farrakhan in depth the other day during a Q&A with Jewish-community leaders.) But even notwithstanding those obvious moments, Sen. Clinton just kept trying to press the offense tonight in rather tone-deaf and unpresidential fashion. See also the 16-minute health care hijacking at the start of the debate, where Obama more than held his own. (As well he should — we’ve only gone through this, lo, twenty times or so now.)

At any rate, from this admittedly biased corner Sen. Obama seemed magnanimous and presidential, while Sen. Clinton seemed desperate and petulant. But, from any corner, it’s hard to envision this debate performance resulting in the twenty-point margins Clinton needs in both Ohio and Texas to stay viable. Now is by no means the time for we Obama supporters to take our collective foot off the gas: Keep volunteering, phonebanking, donating, and above all voting. Nevertheless, allowing some latitude to keep the karma gods happy, we’re in garbage time, folks.

Deep in the Heart of Texas.

In case you missed it, debate No. 19, held in Austin, TX, came and went this evening. (Transcript.) My quick take: Not all that much news made here, and, as a tie goes to the defender, that’s a win for Barack Obama.

The big question coming in tonight was whether, after losing eleven contests in a row, Sen. Clinton would go into relentless-attack-mode (as desired by Mark Penn) or instead try to reassert her positives and perhaps prepare for a dignified exit to the race (as advised by Mandy Grunwald.) Well, the answer turned out to be yes. The first forty-five minutes or so were civil, agreeable, and thoroughly stultifying, basically a duller continuation of the LA debate of three weeks ago. Then, in the middle going, Sen. Clinton began trying to score some points, for example, by (once again) calling Obama a plagiarist and saying the Senator represented “change you can xerox.” (That canned line backfired rather badly, and drew the only boos of the night. I hope this is because most people realize the plagiarism charge is absolutely moronic.)

For his part, Sen. Obama — looking ever more presidential, as is the frontrunner’s wont — took the high road, correctly calling such maneuvers part of the “silly season” of politics and keeping the conversation mostly about substantive differences, such, as, once again, the interminable mandate question. (He had a particularly good response to the “cult” charge: “The implication has been that the people who have been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional…The thinking is that somehow they’re being duped…and that eventually they’re going to see the reality of things. I think they perceive the reality of what’s going on in Washington very clearly.” Touche.)

The moment that’s getting a lot of the buzz right now is Sen. Clinton’s closing statement, which (Xerox alert!) borrowed heavily from both John Edwards and Bill Clinton in 1992. (I actually don’t care at all about that, but if you’re going to throw around spurious claims of plagiarism, you’d best be careful about that glass house.) More troublingly, in her close Sen. Clinton explicitly invoked her surprisingly game-changing Reverse Muskie back in New Hampshire. (She began this particular lip-quavering moment by asking herself the same goofy question she got in the diner: “How do you do it?”)

Now, I don’t want to claim Sen. Clinton is a fraud, even if she’s seemed considerably less than “absolutely honored to be here with Barack Obama” over the past three weeks of scurrilious charges and no concession speeches. If anything, I agree with CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin, who was much less enthralled by the moment than that venerable Establishment Davos-boogier, David Gergen. I think she got genuinely choked up for exactly the same reasons as she did back in NH. With the writing on the wall for her candidacy, this was a valedictory moment of sorts. Fine, she’s earned it, and I applaud her for seemingly choosing, at least for a few moments, a graceful exit that will help bring the party back together. That being said, I wouldn’t get such a guilty twinge of Bernie Birnbaum-ish grandstanding about it all if she hadn’t explicitly invoked the diner tear, and/or if Clinton flunky Howard Wolfson hadn’t immediately try to tell us afterward that this was “the moment she retook the reins of this race and showed women and men why she is the best choice.” Um, no, not really.

In the City of Angels.

Heya. Sorry this is going up so late…I spent the evening at the Generation Obama event in Midtown, so my usual prObama take on the debates got even more reinforcement than usual…

First off, it was heartening to watch a surprisingly substantive debate. The Nevada roundtable was too sweet, and the Myrtle Beach slugfest was too sour, but tonight’s much-heralded showdown in Los Angeles actually seemed just right. [Transcript.] Both candidates were able to tease out and discuss notable differences in their policies, particularly on health care, immigration reform, and Iraq, while keeping a civil, friendly tone that didn’t seem as unnaturally forced as back in Vegas.

With all that being said, and to no one’s surprise, I thought Barack Obama came out ahead this evening. (In fact, I agree with Andrew Sullivan — this might’ve been his best debate thus far.) He showed a clear and nuanced command of policy. He made a solid case for his strengths, most notably on the question of judgment (“Right on Day 1.”) He explained well how he’s more electable, particularly against John McCain. He was wry and personable. And — when it came to the Republicans — he was often devastating. (That Romney takedown was too rich.)

Hillary Clinton was also good tonight, but she gave more than a few answers that were real groaners. On immigration reform, her attempt to be Obamaesque by invoking the Statue of Liberty was strange and flat. More problematically, her answer on drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants made no sense (She’s against licenses for illegals, to protect illegals?) And, worst of all, when given the chance to defuse a zero-sum understanding of the immigrant issue, she instead told a story about an African-American man who blamed Latinos for his job loss, and it was hard not to read an off-putting Bendixen subtext into it.

Most notably, when it came to Iraq in the final third, Clinton was terrible. Rather than just admit she made a mistake in either [a] supporting the war or [b] believing Dubya, she seemed unwilling to concede any possibility of error, and got stuck in an increasingly tortured answer about her position on the AUMF vote. It was unseemly, to say the least, even Dubyaesque. And the more she spun her wheels, the better Obama looked. Update: Apparently, she also butchered the truth about the Levin Amendment.

Still, my general impression is that CNN’s Jeff Toobin basically got the larger chess game right: As a TPM commenter well put it: Hillary Clinton is currently in the lead and is trying to run the four corners until the clock runs out. Barack Obama is surging massively right now and didn’t want to upset that o-mentum unduly. So neither candidate felt they needed to shake up the current paradigm all that much, which helped keep everything friendly.

Instead, Obama wanted to show undecideds that he has presidential gravitas and can policy-wonk as needed. Clinton wanted to staunch her negatives and get the focus back on her rather than Wild Bill. (Which reminds me, no question about Kazakhstan?) In that sense, both candidates accomplished what they came to do.

Now, it’s up to us.

The Gloves Come Off.

“I understand that most viewers want to know, how am I going to get helped in terms of paying my health care? How am I going to get help being able to go to college? All those things are important. But what’s also important that people are not just willing to say anything to get elected. And that’s what I have tried to do in this campaign, is try to maintain a certain credibility.I don’t mind having policy debates with Senator Clinton or Senator Edwards. But what I don’t enjoy is spending the week or two weeks or the last month having to answer to these kinds of criticisms that are not factually accurate.

The faux bonhomie of Nevada’s roundtable well behind them, the Democratic candidates started throwing haymakers in tonight’s lively South Carolina debate. [Transcript.] Unlike the last two meetings, I’m not going spend a lot of time on a full-fledged summary, since — when it gets this heated onstage — I don’t think it’s particularly useful. Judging from the comment threads at the various political sites, people will see what they want to see. Clinton supporters are coming out of the woodwork to say she won the night. Well, that was definitely not my impression.

For my part, I was glad to see Barack Obama strongly counter Clinton’s continued distortions in the first hour, and finally push back on Clinton’s dubious “35 years of change” line (including, as it does, twelve years at the Rose Law Firm, which has been billed as Arkansas’ “ultimate establishment law firm.”) And he did a great job in the seated second hour of reasserting his positives — the funny and gracious “first black president” answer, for example — while staying on message.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was at her evasive, misleading, Rovian worst. She did ok on the first question, about the economic stimulus package, but went rapidly downhill thereafter. Rather than running on her own record, She repeated her distortions about Reagan. She repeated her husband’s distortions about Obama’s stance on Iraq. She tried (and failed) to turn Obama’s present votes in the Illinois Senate into a vote for sexual abuse. And she like her husband — basically accused Obama (wrongly) of being Clintonian. (“[I]t is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.“)

Clinton also tried to inject the Rezko story into the debate. For those not following, Tony Rezko is a clearly shady Chicago businessmen with whom Obama had dealings with as a state legislator, and an iffy-looking land deal thereafter. An error in judgment, to be sure, and one he’s apologized for (even though it looks like there’s no there there.) Now it’s a fair thing to bring up, as Obama himself admitted. But,to be honest, Rezko is really not a road Hillary Clinton wants to go down. For one, you’d think the Clintons — of all people — would try to avoid insinuating corruption-by-association when it comes to land deals. For another, do Norman Hsu, Marc Rich, and Johnny Chung ring a bell? Shady operators in the margins are and have been the Clintons’ forte.

But I digress. Once the fur started to fly, John Edwards got plugged into the “above the fray” role by default, which may have helped him out among undecideds, I guess. Still, I was glad to see he directed attacks at both Obama and Clinton as he felt warranted, which should prevent another embarrassing post-debate spin along the lines of “the men were picking on me.” But you never know. After all the outrageous displays of intellectual dishonesty from the Clinton camp, both tonight and over the past few weeks, I’d put nothing past them at this point.

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