Thursday, January 31, 2008

Debate Thoughts

When I've blogged about the Democratic debates, I've generally tried to avert a lot of the domestic policy issues. I do that primarily because I've spent most of my life as a Republican, and I have very little idea how specific differences on domestic policy play within various Democratic Party groups. For a better idea on those issues, I strongly recommend Kyle's live-blogging of the debate. Still, I feel plenty comfortable discussing foreign policy since many Dems are more libertarian-friendly on this issue than Republicans are; ditto with immigration policy. And of course I feel comfortable discussing the unsubstantive things about the debates that still wind up being critically important.

Given those limitations, here are my thoughts on tonight's debate:

1. Despite his momentum, Obama is still trying to come from behind, and has only a few days to do that in over 20 states. To voters in those states who are just starting to pay attention and are not generally obsessed with politics, Obama is probably still something of an enigma. Hillary, on the other hand, is a completely known quantity within the party rank and file. This meant that tonight was much more important to Obama than it was to Hillary. It was his chance to sell himself to people currently supporting Hillary on name recognition alone. With that in mind, the primary question coming into this debate was not so much whether Hillary or Obama would win, but whether Obama would be able to cut into Hillary's support by enough of a margin to catch her.

2. The generally civil, policy-focused tone favored Hillary substantially on domestic policy. I say this because the discussion of domestic policy generally amounted to incredibly specific, detailed discussion of numbers whose actual significance to the average voter is nil. In getting into those details, Obama's ability to inspire is dramatically neutralized.

3. Foreign policy, however, has become extremely easy to understand these days, at least from the perspective of the average dove (which fairly well sums up most Democrats, I think): are you for the Iraq War or against it? Are you for an aggressive foreign policy or a more humble one. On these questions, Obama wiped Hillary across the floor. In fact, Hillary wiped herself all over the floor, managing to sound like a neo-con with her approving use of the phrase "coercive diplomacy." If I were Obama, I would take her sentence on that and play it on loop in as many Progressive media outlets as possible.

4. It would seem that Hillary's response to the dynasty question was approvingly received by the Dem grassroots. Certainly her catch phrase of "It took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush..." hit home beautifully with the base. It's unfortunate that they largely ignored the part of the response where she increduosly claimed that she and Obama had to start the campaigns on an even footing, as if her fundraising ability and initial name recognition advantage had nothing to do with her famous last name.

5. If there were concerns about how Obama would respond to Republican tried-and-true arguments, I think you'd have to say he passed with flying colors: humorous, disarming, and devastatingly accurate. How anyone can think that Hillary would stand up better to such arguments than Obama is officially beyond me at this point.

6. Both of them have clearly learned from their past mistakes that the first person to go onto the offensive winds up the loser in the long run. As a result, they both spent the debate trying to bait each other into going on the attack - neither ever really did it, though Obama through some beautiful soft jabs that no one could take offense to, but which did paint some differences between the two.

7. After Obama started landing some of those soft jabs, Hillary's demeanor did seem to change a bit, at least when he was speaking. She did a good job composing herself for her answers, but the look on her face while he was responding was all too similar to McCain's "too-cool-for-the-room" smirk last night. I thought that demeanor hurt McCain significantly last night, and I think it hurt Hillary again tonight.

Final verdict: Despite all of the above, I'd say it was a draw or only a slight advantage to Obama (Hillary just had too much of a built-in advantage on domestic policy questions in this format). Still, given the familiarity of so many voters with Hillary built up over the last 16 years, I think Obama probably picks up a couple of points on her, making the national poll numbers close to a dead heat. How that plays out in the individual Super Tuesday states I have no idea, though.

More thoughts on memeorandum.