A Very Serious, Very Thoughtful Debate Live Blog

| Wed Apr. 16, 2008 6:05 PM EDT

We've decided to try to hold off on the snark for this, the 1052nd Democratic presidential debate. Instead, we'll deliver a debate live blog of the kind that has never been written with such detail or such care. Joining me in the Mother Jones debate coverage center (read: my living room) is Mr. G, a proud member of the vast left-wing conspiracy.

The main topic of campaign discussion for the past week has been the "bitter" controversy, which I wrote about earlier this week. Everyone's hoping the moderators steer away from the "bitter" stuff (and Hillary's alleged screw the Reagan Democrats comment), but that doesn't seem likely. George Stephanopoulos told Sean Hannity that "electability" issues like the "elitism" controversy and the Jeremiah Wright situation will be a prime focus of the debate. If Stephanopoulos keeps his word, Mr. G (a diehard Yankees fan) and I (a proud member of Red Sox nation) will be itching to switch to ESPN2 (You want to see bitter, watch a Sox-Yankees game with a divided crowd).

8:05: Both candidates spent their fairly uninspiring boilerplate opening statements talking about issues—health care, the economy, government responsiveness. It will be interesting to see how much time the moderators choose to spend asking them about those issues.

8:07: Gibson asks the "dream ticket" question: "Will you take the losing candidate as your vice president?". It's pretty disappointing that ABC led with such a totally unoriginal question that neither candidate is likely to answer in full. But Clinton's answer was very gracious and hit all the right notes.

8:11: Here's the "bitter" question. Let's see how Obama responds.

8:16: Clinton articulated her criticism of the "bitter" controversy very well. Obama seemed a little uncertain.

8:18: Clinton and Obama both say that the other can win.

8:20: Obama's second try at responding to the "bitter" stuff is brilliant. He's attacking the politics of soundbites. This is the clip that will be played all day tomorrow. "This is what passes for our politics."

8:22: Jeremiah Wright. We still haven't heard about issues. Clinton's playing really rough here. But Obama's response to Stephanopoulos' follow-up: "If it's not this, it would be something else," was very clever.

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8:30: Clinton has to respond to the "sniper fire" issue. She takes responsibility for it, and apologizes, which is the right move. And Obama was smart to try to play it down. It works well with his argument about trying to ignore gaffes.

8:38: We still haven't heard anything about a policy issue. But now we do know that Barack Obama doesn't hate the American flag. Thank god for that. (Note: holding off on the snark is getting tough with these kind of questions).

8:41: ABC is asking about the Weathermen now. Did Sean Hannity and Matt Drudge write these debate questions? Hillary is really silly to harp on this in her response—her husband did pardon two of the Weathermen. Obama was smart to mention that fact and to mention the issues—which the moderators still haven't brought up.

8:52: Hey! An issues-based question! I love the GOP frame on this: do you have a "real plan" in Iraq. Is John McCain ever asked this question? But Hillary's response is perfect: civilian control of the military. The President is elected to make decisions. Both candidates' responses were very good - Hillary's allusion to MacArthur was particularly apt. This is how Democrats should talk about national security—strategy vs. tactics.

8:59: The candidates are asked about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Neither one mentions the fact that the NIE said Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

9:07: Both candidates are asked about taxes. Clinton seemed to promise not to raise taxes on people making under $250,000. Obama said his upper limit would be somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000. When asked about capital gains, Hillary says taxes are only part of the picture. She attacks Obama for his desire to raise the cap on the payroll tax. He points out that only around 6 percent of the population makes more than the cap. [Update from JS: Gibson kept insisting that lowering the capital gains tax brings in more federal revenue. Wrong!]

9:30: Jonathan Stein here, I'm your relief live-blogger. Both Clinton and Obama support reasonable limitations on gun ownership that are consistent with the 2nd amendment. Generally speaking, that means they don't support an all-out ban on handguns, but they also don't want automatic weapons in the hands of criminals. Beyond that, the moderators are having a hard time getting any specifics. And you know what? Screw 'em. They've earned no love tonight.

9:36: What is Hillary Clinton going to do about gas prices? Investigate them! She believes there is market manipulation going on, particularly by energy traders. I don't know who they are, but they sound ominous. Obama is also on board with investigations of manipulation and price gouging. Also, he says we should raise fuel efficiency standards on cars because the only real way to reduce prices is to reduce demand. Also, a windfall profits taxes. Also, an Apollo project to create alternative energy technologies. He has lots of ideas.

9:39: Is this debate being held on the set of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? What's with the circular stadium seating that surrounds the speakers? There was a question in there about how they would use GWB in their administration. Neither was terribly excited about the prospect, though they didn't rule it out. I missed the substance of that response because I was typing about stadium seating.

9:44: Earlier in the debate, Charlie Gibson got all worked up defending the folks who make between $97,000 and $250,000 — if Obama raises the cap on payroll taxes in order to add money to Social Security, those folks will get hit with new taxes. Obama argues that this is a very well-to-do minority; CG thinks they're middle class. He's wrong. And he's been wrong. Charles Gibson doesn't seem to know the middle class very well.

9:46: Charlie Gibson calls his own debate "fascinating."

9:48: Gibson has a special question lined up for the finish. It's actually pretty disappointing: how will you convince superdelegates at the convention that they should give you the nod. It's an opportunity for the candidates to list all the reasons why they are the better candidate — essentially, it's an license to say anything at all. Clinton: fighter, lifetime of experience, bringing everyone back into the American family. Obama: Democrats and Republican are disillusioned, politics that lift the country up, change does not happen from the top down, PACs/lobbyists/special interests. You know, the usual.

9:51: Debate over. Usually these debates go one-and-a-half hours or two hours. Rarely do they go one hour and 51 minutes. But this one did. Thanks for hanging out these 111 minutes.

9:57: I'm back! Olbermann and Chuck Todd are slamming the moderators of the debate on MSNBC. Nothing on trade and nothing on FISA, they say. Light on policy and heavy on nonsense like the Weathermen. Todd predicts Obama supporters will be TOed tomorrow, but that it's fair to argue that Obama deserves this. Clinton got tough questions when she was the frontrunner; Obama ought to get the same. Olbermann isn't really buying it: he's calling the moderators out for "tabloid" questions.

10:29: Trolling around the cable news channels, I'm finding talking heads listing topics that weren't raised in today's debate: education, the environment, veterans issues. Howard Wolfson, however, is claiming on MSNBC that the Weathermen question was a fair and necessary one. He's really hammering it. Wolfson, by the way, is the Porsche 911 of PR flacks. He can go zero to spin in 2.5 seconds.