(Liveblogging at bottom of post)
Tonight’s debate in Ohio between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – the 20th they’ve participated in, the last one before the potentially decisive primaries in Texas and Ohio, and supposedly (hopefully?) the last one they’ll have – comes at a critical point in both campaigns.
For Obama, it could be a final chance to beat Clinton, either with a knockout blow or on points. The knockout blow would be for Obama to win both Texas and Ohio: no less than Bill Clinton has said Hillary must win both those states to stay in the game, and just a week ago Hillary still had a substantial lead over Obama in both states, so a Clinton loss in both states – which would be her 12th and 13th consecutive losses to Obama – would make Obama appear unstoppable. More importantly, it would put Obama so far in the lead both in pledged (elected) delegates and in states won that Clinton would find it impossible use her considerable political influence to rig the convention. Party leaders, notwithstanding their loyalty to the Clintons, could not override the popular vote to that extent without massive outrage – which would be good neither for the party’s chances in November nor for their personal chances of re-election. If Hillary loses both Texas and Ohio, she’s probably down for the count. That’s Obama’s goal on March 4.
However, an Obama win on points is more likely, either because the candidates wind up splitting the two states (the most recent polls show Obama ahead in one state and Clinton ahead in the other), or because Obama loses both states but comes close enough to divide their delegates almost evenly with Clinton and rendering her win meaningless. (Mathematically, Clinton doesn’t just need to win both states to stay in the game – she needs substantial wins, on the order of 60%, to start catching up to Obama in terms of delegate count.) So Obama will “win” strategically if he even comes close to Clinton – but that’s still much less desirable: if Clinton wins one or both states, even by a statistically irrelevant margin, then regardless of the actual electoral mathematics, the next day’s headlines will trumpet that she’s broken Obama’s winning streak. That breath of life could lengthen Clinton’s candidacy, postponing Obama’s ability to switch into “general election” mode and start challenging McCain directly (and possibly boosting Clinton’s perception that she can make a rigged Convention appear fair). So just coming close in Texas and Ohio would still be a “win” for Obama, but not the decisive one he wants.
March 4 is even more critical from Hillary’s side of things. If she loses both states, the pressure on her to drop out will be intense – and she’s well aware of the electoral math that says she must win decisively to really stay alive. She never expected to have to campaign this long; not only has her campaign spent nearly all its money, but, unbelievably, she doesn’t even have campaign workers in at least one future primary state, because she didn’t anticipate that she’d need them. She simply lacks the resources to keep competing without gaining a big win that both puts her back in the race numerically and that reassures her big donors that their money isn’t being wasted. The March 4 primaries are her best – maybe only – chance of getting that kind of win.
So the pressure’s on, and tonight’s debate is both candidates’ chance to force the other into some kind of major mistake that tilts public opinion decisively one way or the other. That means that – more than any of the 19 debates that preceded it – the two candidates are likely to pull out all the stops. That doesn’t mean that their moves will be obvious – Hillary learned an important lesson when her frontal attack on Obama’s alleged plagiarism in the last debate drew boos from the audience. Instead, I expect tonight to look more like a sumo match: two giants, both exerting tremendous force, locked together almost without visible movement, each trying small maneuvers that could tip the balance, release the pent-up energy, and send the other flying unexpectedly out of the ring. Small maneuvers, big potential consequences: that’s what I expect to see tonight.
Given that the moves may be subtle, it might be helpful to have a sort of program or outline of what to look for tonight. The candidates’ longstanding themes, their recent maneuvers, and some key recent events all offer clues as to what to expect:
1. One vs. Two: Obama is starting to transition from primary candidate to nominee, and in his last debate against Clinton, he seemed at times to be campaigning against McCain as much as he was against Clinton. Look for much more of that tonight, especially in light of the latest poll showing that the majority of Democrats now (correctly) see Obama as having the better chance of beating McCain in November. By turning his guns on McCain rather than Clinton, Obama can increase voters’ perception that his candidacy is inevitable, reinforce the sense that he can beat McCain, appear statesmanlike by focusing on the real opponent instead of engaging in destructive intraparty squabbling with Clinton) – and, in reality, get a start on the campaign that really matters.
2. Same Old Messages, But With a Twist: Both candidates are likely to stick to some version of their longstanding themes – but both sides have been making moves both to defend against and to co-opt the other’s main themes, which should unfold in interesting and complex ways tonight. The main memes to watch:
Experience: From Day 1, Hillary’s main attack has been that Obama lacks sufficient experience to be President. That argument has always been questionable: her only experience in any elected office is her six years in the U.S. Senate, as compared to Obama’s ten years in public office (as an Illinois State Legislator from 1997 to 2004, and a U.S. Senator from then to the present). Clinton has argued that while First Lady she essentially was Bill Clinton’s “co-President”, but that claim, too, is questionable: certainly she was more involved in policy than most First Ladies, but after the failure of her health care initiative in 1993, her role was scaled back considerably, she has disclaimed any role in her husband’s less popular policies (which Obama has criticized as her cherrypicking which Bill Clinton initiatives she wants to take false credit for). Meanwhile, Obama can point to his career as a state legislator, community organizer, civil rights attorney, and over a decade as a lecturer in Constitutional Law as giving him a background at least as good as Clinton’s.
Similarly, Hillary’s claim that her tenure as First Lady gives her better foreign policy credentials than Obama also seems to overstate her role in the Clinton Administration and ignores Obama’s lifetime experiences as the child of mixed-nationality parents (Kenyan and American), living abroad as a child (in Indonesia, from ages 6 to 10, where he attended both Muslim and Catholic schools) – and his degree from Columbia University in International Relations. Good judgment in the foreign affairs arena will be critical for the next President, but I see Obama actually having the edge here, because turning the corner will call more for creativity and understanding than for Kissingerian Realpolitik.
Possibly because McCain – foreseeing Obama as his likely opponent in the general election – has started echoing Clinton’s claims that Obama sufficient experience to be President, Obama has started fighting back. Tonight, look for him to rock Clinton back on her heels with a well-prepared applause line if she tries to hit him too hard with the “inexperience” charge.
Military Cred vs. Get Us The Hell Out Of Iraq: Another Clinton claim is that her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee somehow will so impress security-minded voters that they will choose her over John McCain – who also serves on that committee, plus has military experience (which both Clinton and Obama lack) and is a bona fide war hero. It’s hard to believe Clinton seriously believes this; the real issue is whether her hawkish Senate votes – including her vote for the war in Iraq (which she still maintains was correct), her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment declaring an Iranian military unit to be a sponsor of terrorism (giving Bush political cover to take military action in yet another country), and for the “surge” – will cancel out McCain’s built-in advantage with pro-military voters.
In contrast to Clinton, who long ago concluded prematurely that the Democratic nomination would be a cakewalk and started positioning herself for the general election, Obama has stuck closer to basic Democratic principles, which include opposition to the war. That probity is serving him well, as those primary voters who consider the war important are tending to support him. And recent events have undercut Clinton’s attacks. For example, Obama took heat for his recent claim that a military unit was sent into Afghanistan shorthanded because some of its members were deployed in Iraq – but Army Chief of Staff General George Casey has taken Obama’s side, stating today that "there is no reason to doubt" that Obama was telling the truth.
What Tone Will Clinton Take? Clinton has been bouncing between two campaign advisors’ advice, one to take the high road, one to go on the attack. Obama has taken flak for being a Muslim (untrue, and so what if he were, anyway); refusing to take the pledge of allegiance (untrue); plagiarism (untrue, and Clinton has done the same); and more. In the last debate, Clinton tried both tacks and wound up striking a conciliatory tone (albeit using borrowed language) – then went back on the attack the next day, challenging Obama to debate tonight not about the issues but about his allegedly dishonest campaign tactics. I’ve written at length about Clinton’s own questionable tactics – but let’s watch to see whether the high or low road prevails in Clinton’s presentation tonight.
Those are the highlights. I’ll “liveblog” this post as the debate occurs, so please keep refreshing.
18:27 Pacific: Despite the moderator's attempt to start a fight, I'm glad to see the candidates moved past their initial "he/she hit me back first" claims to actually engage substantively on health care. Obama's explanation of his lack of a mandate seemed presented well to me. Did that disarm one of Clinton's main oppo points against him? (UPDATE 20:20: Pillows??!? Gimme a break!)
Russert confirms Obama's assertion that Clinton has made pro-NAFTA statements in the past -- big point for Obama, especially in Ohio, for whose workers NAFTA is a big issue. And Clinton waffles some on her answer, saying she'll opt out of NAFTA unless it's renegotiated.
18:33: Obama errs by echoing Clinton's answer on NAFTA -- lost a clear edge he used to have there. And Clinton's doing a good job answering Russert's strong challenge on her unmet campaign promise to make rather than lose jobs. Again, jobs are a big issue in Ohio, and important for Clinton to preserve cred on.
Brian Williams asks Obama about foreign policy -- specifically, Clinton's claim that Obama has no more foreign policy expertise than Bush. Will he note his degree in I.R. -- or the fact that Bill Clinton had no foreign policy experience when taking office, either? ...
18:36 Obama nicely turns the "foreign policy" question into a "war" question, but again errs by agreeing with Clinton on domestic programs without emphasizing that she, like McCain, has supported the war.
Clinton referring to "my extensive experience in foreign policy," claiming credit for, among other things, the Ireland peace talks. And she accuses Obama of saying Bush is handling the war right, and claims they're voting identically (now that the war is a fact). On the other hand, she's criticizing Obama for saying he would bomb Pakistan -- which both takes that comment out of context, and reinforces that Obama's tougher than she previously has characterized him.
She does make the "I'm on the foreign relations committee with McCain" claim I predicted, and I still don't see it as very impressive. Obama makes a great rebuttal, too -- that sure, we may agree on how to get the bus out of the ditch, but she voted to drive the bus into the ditch in the first place. And he clarifies the "bomb Pakistan" claim, even coattailling onto a Bush administration military move -- the first strong example I see tonight of Obama using this debate to position himself for the general election.
18:48: Moderators ask a God-awful question about re-invading Iraq; Clinton does a responsible job of ducking it, Obama does a better job by stating clearly that he'll always reserve the right, after a 9/11-type event, to protect American interests, without falling into the trap being set for him (of saying he'd do what Bush did).
18:53: Here's a good resource to cross-check with, but please open in a new tab instead of leaving my nice blog! WaPo Fact Checker.
Great video clip of Hillary mocking Obama's inspirational message, which makes her look small -- and great response by Obama, moving past her claims of insubstantiality to assert the content of his background and of his policy positions. Score for him.
18:56: And Obama brings in his legislation helping "wounded warriors" at Walter Reed, tax breaks for the middle class, and jobs -- gaining ground both on Clinton and on McCain. Smooth.
18:59: Nice clip of Obama casting herself as "copresident" and selectively choosing what she wants to run away from and what she wants to take credit for. Unlike the previous clip of Hillary, which I think made her look bad, this one made Obama look good -- and he then underscored it in his comments about it.
How will he do against the sort of vague litany of complaints Clinton previously raised... back to healthcare...
19:02: GREAT Obama line: "hope is not enough" but to effect change, we need to "inspire" the American people "to get involved and pay attention", "which is what I've been doing in this campaign."
19:04: Good question, on an issue I didn't predict: McCain's claim that Obama's waffling on campaign financing. Obama's answer -- that he'll talk to McCain -- isn't as clear as it could have been, since the facts are on his side (and St. John McCain isn't pure on this issue, either). Obama's error: he didn't make it clear that he did NOT EVER make a promise to use public financing. Medium-sized mistake that will haunt him for awhile. UPDATE AT 19:50: The MSNBC commentators read Obama's actual promise, which was that if he became the nominee he would "aggressively pursue an agreement" with the Republicans to mutually limit campaign spending. He's not breaking that promise.
19:07: Clinton: "I will release my tax return" but can't photocopy her tax return before next week because she's personally too busy? Give me a break! And her other statements about the release of her other records also is disingenuous -- I don't have time now to find the link, but she's been secretive as hell. UPDATE AT 19:49: The commentators point out that Obama has already released his return; I wish Obama had said that in the debate!
Awful question about Obama/Louis Farrakahn, reinforcing the lies about Obama being a Muslim. And while Obama is correct about his past denunciations of Farrakhan, he wasn't firm enough tonight -- and calling him "Minister Farrakhan" sounds strange on the tongue, too. Now Russert raises Obama's pastor and emphasizes a tenuous antiSemitism -- is Russert TRYING to ensure Obama loses Florida and evangelical votes in the general? -- but Obama nicely dodges the pastor/Farrakhan connection to focus on his support for Israel. Nice additional point about hoping to re-establish the 1950s-1960s civil rights ties between the African American and Jewish communities. My unmet wish: Obama didn't make it absolutely clear that he's not Muslim; I suspect he doesn't realize how many people still believe he is. UPDATE 20:55: I didn't realize this till tonight, but the Clinton campaign has been feeding "Obama doesn't support Jews" theme... similar to the negative campaigning they've been doing all along...
19:15: Clinton gives a good statement about the importance of firmly rejecting objectionable people's support; Obama takes the opportunity to sort of do what he should have done originally -- "reject and renounce" -- but this is a big point for Clinton. Obama's either strangely unwilling to offend Farrakhan -- is he merely being polite? -- or he's overestimating Farrakhan's support in the black community, which today isn't strong. Bad debating by Obama, nicely done by Clinton.
19:20: A tough question for Obama, about him being ranked more liberal than Ted Kennedy by the National Journal. Tough, because liberality helps him in the primary and hurts him in the general, forcing him to make a choice. Nice answer, though -- pointing out that he's no more liberal than Clinton, and that he's winning record numbers of votes from independents and Republicans -- and adding that "every poll shows that I beat John McCain in ... the general election." (Which is true, and has been almost without exception for over a year now.) (Prior posts on this here and here.)
Softball to Clinton about Russia to make her look good in foreign relations; she handles it nicely and looks good (UPDATE, 20:53: except for fumbling the name of Russia's new President; as a commenter elsewhere asked, what happened to 'ready on day 1'?); Obama does well. Then a harder question to Obama on Kosovo, who starts slowly (we'll talk), but makes back that ground by explaining that NATO is responsible for rebuffing any Russian invasion of Europe and that the U.S. need not work alone (as Bush has done).
Interesting q: any words and vote you'd take back? Clinton -- FOR THE FIRST TIME, to my knowledge -- finally withdraws her vote to invade Iraq. (Then looks a little wimpy, saying essentially "ignore my past" because this is "about the future.") About taking back the Iraq vote, "I've said that many times." I don't think that's true, but I'll double check myself. Answering the same question, Obama says he wishes he'd stopped the Terri Schiavo fiasco; good that he mentioned being a Constitutional Law professor, but I wonder whether the general public will catch that he only regrets not filibustering it, and mistakenly think he actually voted with the Republicans to interfere in that case. UPDATE 19:53: Commentators on MSNBC confirm she's never gone that far before.
19:31: Williams' final question: to Obama: looks statesmanlike in crediting Clinton as a good candidate and good President and clearly better than McCain (against whom, again, he makes a strong argument). "I can bring this country together... in a unique way", across racial and other divisions. A very true statement, as exit polls and other objective data show.
And a similarly nice answer from Clinton, except for her claim of 35 years of public service; this time, at least, she mentioned that part of that was in the "private sector", but still: on the board of WalMart? She hasn't been working for the public good for 35 years straight, though she has for many of them. But still, a good, and unaggressive vs. Obama, response.
19:39: Debate's over; I'll liveblog the pundits for little while before signing off.
19:46: NBC/MSNBC online say Clinton mounted an "all out attack" on Obama. I didn't see it; anyone else? Next day: WaPo's Tom Shales saw it as I did, referring to "cooler heads" prevailing.
20:32: Washington Post's initial take on the debate... Next day: And its later one... And Time's story, headlining it as a "clash", with a companion piece ... and the NYT's Adam Nagourney, who sums it up well.
20:49: Not specifically debate-related, but jeezus: Q: why are people turning away from the MSM and to alternative media like blogs? A: stories in mainstream publications like this one, positing that Obama is "the first woman President." Yow.
BACK TO VICHYDEMS HOME