Friday, February 01, 2008


Barack & Hill Go Hollywood

There may not be an Academy Awards this year (because of the writers strike), but at least the Kodak Center in L.A. was put to good use: With the requisite Hollywood royalty in the audience (hardly the type of spectacle that identifies Democrats as the Party of the People), the last two remaining Democratic presidential contenders squared off.

In a quick overview, it is quite obvious that Barack Obama is a better speaker, while Hillary Clinton is a better debater. He had an outstanding opening statement -- generous to both the departed Edwards and to his once-and-future friendship with Hillary -- and reflective of the historic nature of his and Hillary's candidacies. Hillary's own opening statement was fine -- she mentioned Edwards as well -- but it was far more prosaic.

However, as the debate continued, it is very clear that Clinton is the master of policy minutiae. That likely turns some people off. Indeed, one could say that it might even be a bad idea to have a president that well versed in all the intricate details of policy. As a couple of people (including Carl Bernstein after the debate) noted, Hillary sounded more like the Secretary of HHS than a president when she was describing the differences between hers and Obama's health plans.

Still, this is her strongest asset. The best way to demonstrate that she is more than just Bill Clinton's wife -- and trading on his name (a point alluded to near the end of the debate) -- is to show that she has a genuine mastery of the details. Given the near-universal criticism of the Bush administration from a competence standpoint, having a presidential candidate demonstrate that they are well-versed in policy isn't necessarily a bad thing. Furthermore, using her '94 health-care debacle as a "lesson learned" trope gives Hillary Clinton the opportunity to show a humility that is clearly absent in her abject refusal to call her Iraq war vote a "mistake."

Of course, that is her vulnerability and Obama's strength. He turned her clear skill on policy detail -- and the "experience" that suggested -- right back on her when it came to the Iraq vote. He contrasted her "experience" with his "judgment" that he was able to figure out that the Iraq war authorization was a bad idea even when he was still a state senator. Obama rightly knows that he is clearly on the right side of this issue as far as it goes for nearly all Democrats, many independents and a healthy minority of Republicans.

This issue is further a weakness for Hillary Clinton because just as she is a commanding figure on the stage, looking strong and confident, while talking health-care, her body language betrays her -- she looks defensive when trying to explain her war vote.

However, she still stuck to her guns -- so to speak -- and continued to refuse to call her vote a "mistake." This has to be more than just simple "stubbornness" on Clinton's part. I believe that she believes the political fallout is far greater for a woman admitting to a mistake on an issue of war and national security than it is for a man. John Edwards could admit that the Iraq War vote was a "mistake," and it could be accepted (for all the good it did him in the primaries). But, Clinton can't. It's not just the simple act of "admitting a mistake." It touches upon definite negative stereotypes of women, that Hillary is trying to navigate around. The "emotional moment" she pulled in New Hampshire took her right up to the line -- she notably did NOT actually cry. She moistened up, but no actual tear came down her face. If it had, she would have been toast.

Similarly, an admission of mistake opens the door to snide comments such as "women are indecisive" or "it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind." A president can, conceptually, admit a mistake -- but a commander-in-chief (as Hillary referred to herself) has to be self-assured. For Hillary, letting the "m"-word escape -- in this particular area national security and war -- would be the true mistake.

That said, both did wiell throughout the debate. In contrast to the South Carolina event, civility and politeness were the order of the day. That helped both candidates: Obama didn't fall into the "Rick Lazio" trap and look like he was bullying the woman on the stage. At the same time, she didn't appear harsh or too histrionic (i.e. bitchy).

In response to a viewer-generated question on why it wouldn't be better to elect a president who could run the country like a business, both got off a couple of good lines at Romney's (and Bush's expense): "We've had someone who ran as a CEO/MBA president -- and look what we got," said Hillary. (She also threw in a broader, philosophical response on why the country wasn't a "business" that sounded about right).

Obama's line though was more pointed and witty. Noting how much the former Massachusetts governor has personally spent on his own campaign, Obama said, "Gov. Romney hasn't gotten much return on his investtment, so I would happily match my management style over the last year with his." Good thinking on his feet. Obama was also the first person to start throwing zingers at John McCain -- inverting the attack-Hillary-because-she's-going-to-be-the-Democratic-nominee style from previous GOP debates.

Some might not like Hillary's response to the "dynasty" question ("It took a Clinton to clean up after a Bush before and it might take another Clinton to clean up after this Bush." However, what else can she say? It might be risky, but she could use a variation of what she said when running for her Senate re-election in 2006: Refusing to say that she would serve out her term (i.e., not run for president), Clinton would say, "Voters can take that fact into account when they get into the voting booth." It carries a bit more risk this time, but Hillary can say, "I'm running for president. I have my own skills. If you are uncomfortable with who I am because my husband was president -- and two Bushes preceeded us -- well that is one more factor as you make your choice. I can't change who I am."

But would Hillary ever have the guts to say that?

Hillary, in my view, won New Hampshire
with her performance (and Obama's rare slip in decorum) in the ABC debate the weekend before. If she stems the apparent Obama wave that has been building since South Carolina -- and wins the lion's share of the delegates on Super Tuesday -- it will be because of this Hollywood debate. I think both candidates did well, but there was more pressure on Clinton to balance the likeability and knowledgability quotient.

I think she pulled it off.

UPDATE: Debate transcript here.

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