Tonight in Hollywood, with celebrities packing the seats of the historic Kodak Theater, anyone expecting a blockbuster debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was sorely disappointed. Neither made a bold play for the other’s supporters. Neither took any chances. In general, both were civil, composed, and very impressive. One could argue that Obama won as a result, because he showed a national audience of newly attentive February 5 voters that he could match Hillary Clinton point for point. One could also argue that the calmness of the debate favored Clinton, who, as the frontrunner, avoided any incidents that could jeopardize her supremacy.
One could also argue the campaigns decided that, because the delegate count will be relatively close after February 5, they had no reason to go for broke and were content to leave the night as a wash.
There were moments, however, that rewarded close attention. Early in the debate, the candidates were asked a question about whether illegal immigrants take African American jobs. Obama, responding first, argued that there are systemic problems in the American economy that steal opportunities from minorities and the poor. To point to illegal immigrants is to make them a scapegoat. Clinton responded by pandering to downscale voters.
There are people who have been pushed out of jobs and factories and meat processing plants, and all kinds of settings. And I meet them. You know, I was in Atlanta last night, and an African-American man said to me, “I used to have a lot of construction jobs, and now it just seems like the only people who get them anymore are people who are here without documentation.”
It was an effective comparison between the two. While Obama was trying, perhaps in vain, to suggest his willingness to question conventional wisdom and his emphasis on telling “hard truths,” Clinton said what was politically expedient and probably won more voters.
A similar situation came later in the debate, when Obama chastised the Hollywood executives in the audience for marketing violent images to children. Clinton smiled and added nothing.
The discussion on the war also crystallized the differences (and the similarities) between the candidates. Obama repeatedly emphasized that he was against the war from the beginning, when it was unpopular to hold that position. Being ready on Day One was fine, Obama said, but it is more important “to be right on Day One.” While Clinton focused on the future—”What are we going to do going forward?”—Obama looked back long enough to call the war “conceptually flawed.” “I don’t want to just end the war,” he said, “but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” In the end, however, both candidates indicated that they want to get out of Iraq, and that may be all that voters take away.
But the candidates’ performances during the Iraq portion of the debate may get overshadowed, in the TV media’s replay of clips and sound bites, by a moment that was created by the mediator. After Clinton argued that those who supported the war in Iraq did so because of solid evidence, Blitzer asked, “You were naive to believe President Bush?” The crowd reacted with boos and jeers—one man actually shouted “C’mon, Wolf!”—and it appeared to be a revival in miniature of the pre-New Hampshire zeitgeist, in which voters not normally predisposed toward Clinton were willing to sympathize with her fight against an antagonistic media.
In all, however, it would be hard for anyone to point to a clear victor. It was a highly substantive debate that focused largely on the issues and let both candidates speak at length. Naturally, with two talented candidates each with over a year of campaigning under his or her belt, everyone (except Wolf Blitzer, perhaps) came off well.