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A Tale Of Two Debates

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Or maybe it was just the worst of times.

Two debates took place in Philadelphia tonight. And, conveniently enough, they took place one after another, divided cleanly by a commercial break.

The first debate was garbage time, as ABC moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos took turns confronting the two candidates with questions that have dogged their respective campaigns over the last few weeks.

Obama, the frontrunner, got most of the attention: Exactly which statements of Rev. Jeremiah Wright had he heard--and why hadn’t he denounced the pastor sooner, in stronger terms? Why, years ago, did Obama attend a Chicago fundraiser hosted by one of the Weathermen? Why didn’t Obama wear a flag on his lapel?

At one point, Gibson asked about the now-infamous comments Obama made about “bitter” working-class Americans: “Do you understand that some people in this state find that patronizing and think that you said actually what you meant?”  For a moment, I imagined Obama answering with what I thought might be running through his head. “Of course I know, you dummy. I can read a newspaper.” 

Alas, presidential candidates don’t get to be snide (unless they’re John McCain, in which case they can be anything they want and still get glowing media coverage). Instead, a weary-looking Obama answered all of these familiar questions with what have become his familiar answers. Some are good, some not so good, but in a sense it really didn't matter. The cumulative effect was to turn the debate’s first half into a long infomercial about Obama’s electability issues.

Which, quite possibly, was exactly what Clinton was hoping would happen. Oh, she got some rough treatment too--when Gibson asked a question about her now-discredited story of landing under sniper fire in Bosnia. (Also a silly issue, in my opinion, though that's another story.) But, for the most part, Clinton used this time to criticize Obama--for not leaving his church, for making elitist comments about working-class voters, and so on. In exchange after exchange, Gibson or Stephanoupolos were the ones who raised the issue, but Clinton was the one who wouldn’t let it go.


Clinton’s supporters have justified these sorts of tactics by arguing it’s important to test Obama’s ability to defend against them now, before he’s the nominee. And, I admit, there’s a certain logic to that--particularly after listening to Obama explain what he meant in his comment about working class voters feeling bitter.

It was the one question Obama had to know he would get. But, once again, his answer seemed confused: At one point, he seemed to suggest that bitterness allowed politicians to exploit peripheral issues, like gun control or religion, to distract attention away from economics; at another point, he seemed to suggest that bitterness encouraged people to use guns or become religious. One explanation, in other words, was about the behavior of politicans--the other about the behavior of people.

Still, Clinton’s advisers presumably favor engaging in this sort of campaign for another reason: because they believe it makes Clinton seem like a more appealing candidate. That premise strikes me as a lot more dubious, for reasons that became apparent in the second half.

During this second half, Gibson and Stephanopoulos stopped acting like Tim Russert and began asking largely substantive questions that prompted a serious, if truncated, discussion of the issues. First came a question about the Mideast, then taxes and the budget (although Gibson stubbornly pushed an incorrect premise about capital gains taxes). There was nothing about health care prices--a first in the debates, by my reckoning--but plenty on gasoline prices.

I thought Obama came off well in these exchanges--making sound arguments, for instance, in defense of raising taxes on the wealthy. Doing so, he said, would guarantee “that our tax system is fair and that we are able to finance health care for Americans who currently don't have it and that we're able to invest in our infrastructure and invest in our schools. And you can't do that for free, and you can't take out a credit card from the Bank of China in the name of our children and our grandchildren and then say that you're cutting taxes, which is essentially what John McCain has been talking about.”

Still, as in nearly every previous debate, Clinton came off even better. Obama is no slouch on substance, but (at least to me) he doesn’t seem quite as confident--or make arguments about policy in what I would think are the most persuasive way. It was Clinton, for instance, who stood up for taxes on the grounds that it’s an “investment,” one that ultimately benefits the entire citizenry: “you've got to look at the entire economy. And from my perspective, yes, taxes is a piece of it. But you've got to figure out what is it we would invest in that would make us richer and safer and stronger tomorrow, which would be helping everybody.” 

These are the moments when Clinton looks best, while the earlier sequences--where she kept coming back to the attacks on Obama--is when Clinton looks worst. And recent polling offers some evidence to suggest voters see it that way, too. Obama took a hit after the Wright controversy, but it was Clinton whose numbers ultimately fell more (although that may have been more a product of the Bosnia controversy). Similarly, the latest polls in Pennsylvania show him closing the gap with Clinton, despite the remarks about working-class voters--although the polling hasn’t yet captured the full reaction.

So I don’t think Clinton did herself any favors by harping on Obama’s electability issues, whether they be real or imagined. Unfortunately, I don’t think Obama made such a great impression, either--since, like it or not, he spent at least half the night deflecting these same old charges all over again.

Like I said, the worst of times.

--Jonathan Cohn