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The Love-in In L.a.

Some post-debate thoughts:

1.) Much of tonight's affair was a draw. But, even during the draw portions, Obama sharpened his responses a lot relative to his recent debate performances. On health care, for example, my gut (and head) still say Hillary has the stronger position substantively. But Obama really cleaned up his slight-mess of an answer from the South Carolina debate, arguing (compellingly) that he doesn't believe there will be 15 million people left out by his plan (as Hillary claims), explaining that there will be ways to punish people who try to game the system, and that, even with Hillary's subsidies, there will be people who can't afford insurance and could therefore be fined or punished for not buying it. And, of course, Obama got to invoke Ted Kennedy on his own behalf, which never hurts.

Obama also nicely cleaned up his slightly-too-cavalier answer from the Las Vegas debate about his organizational skills. (He'd meant to say he was personally disorganized, not a lousy manager, but it gave Hillary an small opening and she exploited it.) Tonight he was much more circumspect while making the same essential point: "[P]art of the task, I believe, of leadership is the hard nuts-and-bolts of getting legislation passed and managing the bureaucracy," he said. "But part of it is also being able to call on the American people to reach higher, to say we shouldn't settle for an economy that does very well for some, but leaves millions of people behind." That's the most idealistic case for an Obama presidency and he made it eloquently.

In general, Obama gave his wonkiest performance of the campaign (which is not the same as the most tedious--which he wasn't), and it served him well. He was extremely fluent on health care policy and foreign policy and really demolished the idea that he's all uplift and no substance.  

Having said that, Hillary continues to be extremely strong on domestic policy, health care in particular. She's especially good at using the issue to do something Obama excels at--which is to invoke some broader theme. As in South Carolina, she turned it into an argument about political courage, saying she got the same advice Obama got about how controversial a mandate would be, and that she decided to support it anyway. "[B]een there, done that," she said of the likely opposition. "But if you don't start by saying you're going to achieve universal health care, you will be nibbled to death." It was a great moment for her.

2.) Apart from Iraq, immigration was the one substantive issue that wasn't a draw, and it was Obama who got the better of it. He was pitch-perfect when he said blaming immigrants for taking African Americans' jobs is a form of scapegoating. He also argued, correctly, that immigration is at best a minor cause of the economic problems facing American workers, and that the best way to deal with these problems is to put someone other than George W. Bush in charge of economic policy.

For her part, Hillary basically legitimized the zero-sum economic argument, albeit as politically-correctly as possible. I'm not entirely sure what the campaign's thinking was here--I suspect they feel comfortable about their standing with Latinos and want to consolidate their support among working-class whites (possibly even making a play for some former Edwards supporters and African Americans). But I thought it came across as a little mean-spirited and, you know, wrong.

3.) As for Iraq, it's the only exchange the Clinton camp should be truly concerned about after tonight. I'm not sure if the one-on-one format made her more vulnerable on the subject, or if it was just a temporary lapse on her part, but she did way too much parsing and explaining tonight, none of it especially persuasive. All her talk about how she was really just voting for inspectors and coercive diplomacy sounded like a jargon-filled rationalization. And Obama very shrewdly underscored the point by noting that the resolution she supported was called the "Authorization to Use Military Force" in Iraq, and that there was no uncertainty at the time about what it meant.

The great mystery here: Why didn't Hillary just assert what she usually does--that she wouldn't have voted for the war if she knew then what she knows now--and then scurry back to areas of agreement with Obama? 

4.) I thought Hillary was too cute in her response to tonight's lone Bill question. Asked how voters can expect her to control her husband in the White House if she can't control him now, she said, "[O]f course, I'm thrilled to have my husband and my daughter ... representing me and traveling around the country... but at the end of the day, it's my name that is on the ballot, and it will be my responsibility as president and commander in chief, after consulting broadly with a lot of people who have something to contribute to difficult decisions, I will have to make the call. And I am fully prepared to do that."

Good to know. But the question wasn't: Who's going to make policy decisions in your White House? The question was: Will you be able to control your husband? Coming on the heels of today's New York Times expose about Bill's junkets to Kazakhstan, I felt like she had an obligation to confront it directly. She didn't come anywhere close.

5.) Why are all these cable commentators raving about Hillary's line about a Clinton cleaning up after the Bushes? It's perfectly fine as rhetoric, though she's used it several times before. The problem is that it basically reinforces the dynasty question rather than defuse it. (Does that mean that if Jeb or George P. wins the presidency at some point, we'll have to elect yet another Clinton president? Mercy.) As with the Bill question, there's a genuine concern here that she did nothing to address.

--Noam Scheiber