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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why I think Obama won, and Hillary lost, the "YouTube" debate among the Democratic candidates

I watched most of the Democratic presidential candidates' debate on CNN tonight, the main point of which was to demonstrate, I think, that two guys from Tennessee wearing overalls and named Bubba and Dwayne can do at least as good a job of formulating questions for candidates as Chris Matthews. Two moments stood out for me, but I haven't read any other bloggers who've reacted to them in the same way I did, and at least one had a very different reaction to one sequence.


The first was in response to a question as to whether the candidates would be willing to forgo their salaries and work for only minimum wage if they were elected. Among the responses:

[CNN's Anderson] COOPER: Senator Dodd, would you work for the minimum wage?

DODD: I have two young daughters [and] I'm trying to educate them. I don't think I could live on the minimum wage, but I'm a strong advocate to seeing to it that we increase it at least to $9 or $10 to give people a chance out there to be able to provide for their families.

That seemed okay when he said it. But then, after both Edwards and Clinton gave short, affirmative responses to the question, Sen. Barack Obama weighed in (emphasis and bracketed portion mine, parentheticals in CNN's not-very-complete transcript):

OBAMA: Well, we can afford to work for the minimum wage because most folks on this stage have a lot of money. It's the folks ...

(APPLAUSE) [Dodd begins to interrupt, laughing, with a further objection, and camera switches back and forth between him and Obama]

... on that screen who deserve — you're doing all right, Chris, compared to, I promise you, the folks who are on that screen.



DODD: Not that well, I'll tell you, Barack.

OBAMA: I mean, we don't have -- we don't have Mitt Romney money, but...


But we could afford to do it for a few years. Most folks can't.

Now in fact, I'm perfectly willing to accept that Chris Dodd isn't a wealthy man and that he spends his salary as a Congressman on family expenses, including raising and educating his daughters. I think he was being nothing but truthful and straightforward in his response to the question. And as fat cats go, there were far richer targets on the stage all around him, certainly including Clinton and Edwards. But Dodd protesteth too much, and thus made himself the focus of Obama's comparison. And Dodd — silver-haired, prosperous looking, old, and translucently white-complected — looked at that moment exactly like a charicature of "politics as usual." (And, indeed, he is, even if he's not personally wealthy because of it.)

Obama was pointedly including himself among the "folks on this stage [who] have a lot of money," but he nevertheless used this question to set himself apart from the others and to align himself much more effectively with voters who care deeply about the minimum wage — which includes a whole lot of Democrats who are earning a whole lot more than the minimum wage. It was deft, and it was far more effective than John Edwards' blatant class-warfare "Two Americas" spiel.


Another question, addressed specifically to Sen. Clinton, was from a member of the military serving overseas:

QUESTION: Hello, my name is John McAlpin (ph). I'm a proud serving member of the United States military. I'm serving overseas.

This question is to Senator Hillary Clinton. The Arab states, Muslim nations, believe that women are second-class citizens. If you're president of the United States, how do you feel that you would even be taken seriously by these states in any kind of talks, negotiations, or any other diplomatic relations? I feel that is a legitimate question.

CLINTON: Thank you, John, and thank you for your service to our country.

You know, when I was first lady, I was privileged to represent our country in 82 countries. I have met with many officials in Arabic and Muslim countries. I have met with kings and presidents and prime ministers and sheiks and tribal leaders.

And certainly, in the last years during my time in the Senate, I have had many high-level meetings with presidents and prime ministers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Pakistan and many other countries.

I believe that there isn't much doubt in anyone's mind that I can be taken seriously.


I believe that other countries have had women presidents and women prime ministers. There are several serving now — in Germany, in Chile, in Liberia and elsewhere — and I have noticed that their compatriots on the world stage certainly take them seriously.

I think that it is...


CLINTON: It would be quite appropriate to have a woman president deal with the Arab and Muslim countries on behalf of the United States of America.


I absolutely agree that this was a legitimate question — and it's not a sexist one, even though it's a question about sexism. It was therefore entirely appropriate that Sen. Clinton try to answer it directly, rather than bristling at the fact that it was asked.

That said, however, in contrast to Prof. Althouse (see paragraph 19 of her post), I thought Hillary's answer was incredibly lame — and amazingly so, because you absolutely know that even if not many people have been gutsy enough to ask it this bluntly on the campaign trail, she must have been fielding this exact question and variations on it for months, even for years, in her debate preparations and focus groups.

Starting with a reference to visits she made as First Lady is, I am convinced, a careless use of that double-edged sword. None of those visits she made as First Lady were anything more than ceremonial. I don't doubt for a minute that during the Clinton-42 Administration, Hillary had enormous practical power; but it was mostly hidden after the health-care reform debacle, and it wasn't in an out-front role on foreign policy.

More significantly, though, referring to her history as First Lady in this context is entirely inconsistent with the message she ostensibly ought to be trying to give, which is that any female American President could and would and should be taken seriously by the rest of the world, including the sexists heads of other countries, precisely because she's the President of the United States of America! (Cue that vulgar but apt Track No. 3 from the South Park "Team America" movie!) And by failing to say all of that, or any of that, in so many words, she missed a huge opportunity to score points with American voters, of both genders, who are committed to the idea of gender equality.

If one is going to cite examples of notable national leaders who were effective notwithstanding their lack of a Y-chromosome, then then screamingly obvious example is former British Prime Minister Margaret ("The Iron Lady") Thatcher, followed (equally obviously) by Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi. Babbling about little-known women heads of state from Germany, Chile, or Liberia — Liberia?!? — cuts against her case, since none of those countries, whether headed by a male or a female, is going to be perceived by American voters as having a role remotely comparable to that of the United States in world affairs. For that matter, although Madeline Albright is despised (and rightly so) by conservatives, she's still a good Clintonista, and Hillary could have pointed out that both Albright and now Condi Rice have been the United States' top representatives to foreign governments for most of the last two decades, with neither of them having been obviously hindered by their gender.

Ultimately, Hillary took the question as being mostly about her personally, and what her answer boiled down to was her assertion that "there isn't much doubt in anyone's mind that I can be taken seriously." And that actually may be true, or partly true, at least with respect to at least some foreign leaders. An even more honest answer would have been: "Look, I'm renowned not only in the U.S. but across the world for my capacity to be vengeful, aggressive, brutal, and ruthless, and I'm already about ten times as intimidating to any foreign despot as John Edwards could be even if he shaved his head and got some tattoos." That's the kind of truthful answer she has to limit to the subtext, though, I guess. Her actual ending note — a variation on "that'll show 'em!" — is, of course, exactly the kind of stick-in-the-eye diplomacy of which she claims the Bush-43 Administration is endlessly guilty.

This was a question that begged for a thoughtful, articulate statement of principles. There are so many things she could have said about how we must not abandon our values just to gratify those cultures and countries who don't yet embrace sexual equality. This question was a medium-speed fastball right over the center of the plate — and she laid down a not-so-good bunt with it.


For most of the rest of the debate, Obama looked and sounded inexperienced, and Hillary played it safe. And by the conventional wisdom, on the scorecards of most political pundits, that means "Hillary won." But those two moments illustrate why I continue to believe that when the battle moves outside the realm of pundits, and when one escapes the cautious dynamics of the political movers and shakers and instead gets out among the actual primary voters, Obama is going to eventually kick her butt. Her implacable opponents from the Hard Left will unite with those who ignore Obama's lack of experience but ignite in the presence of his charisma. And that will give him, I still predict, the Democratic nomination, no matter what today's polls say.

Posted by Beldar at 01:32 AM in 2008 Election, Politics (2007) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Why I think Obama won, and Hillary lost, the "YouTube" debate among the Democratic candidates and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» The Real Take-home Message From The CNN Democratic Debate from Hyscience

Tracked on Jul 24, 2007 6:23:51 AM


(1) DWPittelli made the following comment | Jul 24, 2007 9:10:52 PM | Permalink

I think Obama has an unfair advantage relative to Ms. Clinton. Not having a lot to lie about, he doesn't have to think as hard about everything he's about to say.

(2) Patrick R. Sullivan made the following comment | Jul 25, 2007 11:49:23 AM | Permalink

I think, that two guys from Tennessee wearing overalls and named Bubba and Dwayne can do at least as good a job of formulating questions for candidates as Chris Matthews.

Marcel Marceau could do better than Chris Matthews. But, how does one win a panderfest?

(3) Char made the following comment | Jul 26, 2007 10:11:28 AM | Permalink

Ther's no way that the junior senator from NY could mention Lady Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Ghandi. Why? Because all three of them were warriors. They didn't govern from a "let's play nice" position. Their stance was "if you mess with us, we'll take your head off". The anti-war leftists that dominate her party would have her head on a pike if she dared align herself with that trio. Besides, she's not honorable enough to claim any kinship with them.

(4) David made the following comment | Jul 26, 2007 10:14:14 AM | Permalink

I think one of Hillary's mistakes in that answer was to lead with her experiences as First Lady, rather than as Senator. While the power of the Presidency may be greater than that of a Senator, as First Lady she was merely the representative of another's power - compared to being the embodiement of the Sneatorial power.

Put another way - her position as First Lady instead of as President strengthend the argument that she was a second-class citizen, although one who was granted the honor of representing power above her station.

Had she focused on her role as a Senator, where she nominally won and held her power on her own merits, she would have made a much stronger case.

(5) Antimedia made the following comment | Jul 31, 2007 11:34:18 PM | Permalink

"This was a question that begged for a thoughtful, articulate statement of principles."

Which is precisely why Hillary fumbled the answer. She has no principles from which to formulate a thoughtful, articulate answer.

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