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Obama on the Ropes in Philly Debate

Last night's big debate was a definite win for Hillary Clinton. The surprise of the night: both candidates were exceedingly polite to one another.

by
Eric Scheie

Bio

April 16, 2008 - 11:10 pm

In all the years I’ve lived in Pennsylvania (and I grew up here), I have never seen any political campaign like the knock-down, drag-out brawl between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Naturally, with all the animosity and the negative campaigning, there was much speculation about what might happen at tonight’s debate. (Now that it’s over, ABC has this post-debate summary, and NBC’s Chuck Todd declares McCain the winner.)

Anyway, as a blogger who owns guns, believes in some sort of God, and has occasional bitter thoughts, I’m tickled pink to share my thoughts on the debate for PJ Media. Certainly, I was quivering in anticipation. Cartoons like this are everywhere. I’d been blogging up a storm lately (especially about the bitter, churchgoing gun-clingers stuff), and everyone knows this was Hillary’s last clear opportunity. So the big question was….

Would she deliver the knock out punch?

(No, she didn’t.)

Better yet, would “Annie Oakley” Hillary come sauntering in toting a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other?

(In your dreams!)

Plenty of nastiness was predicted, but with a couple of exceptions I’ll discuss in detail, the candidates were a lot nicer to each other than I had expected. I thought questioners George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson were harder on them (especially on Obama) than they were on each other. Fortunately, Stephen Green rectified this imbalance of karma in his drunkblogging by coming down hard on the questioners:

Charlie Gibson is looking especially serious with his glasses way down on his nose, and George Snufflefagus always looks cute in his Big Boy haircut.

Ouch. (Personally I think Steffie has a very convincing haircut, and I’ll bet it was expensive.)

Appearance-wise, I thought Obama looked tired tonight, and a bit harried. Hillary looked rested, alert, on-message, and she was wearing just the right outfit. She stayed alert and alive, while Obama seemed to be suffering from a slight malaise. This is understandable, as he’s the worn-out front-runner who’s really feeling the squeeze, while she’s delighted to have a sudden new opportunity, and she very much seized it tonight. While I would not go so far as to call this debate a total knock-out for Hillary, overall it was a definite win.

Because there’d been so much publicity about it going in, I expected more sniping than there was about the bitter churchgoing gun-clingers, but that part was a draw, and almost boring. In fact, I found myself wondering whether they’d struck a deal to let the “Bittergate” meme die. (Despite the media hullabaloo, it doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent in Obama’s numbers.) So Obama repeated his well-rehearsed explanation about why he’s not an elitist and Hillary reminded us how she’s a “granddaughter of a factory worker from Scranton who went to work in the Scranton lace mills when he was 11 years old, worked his entire life there, mostly six-day weeks” and I was starting to roll my eyes and listen for the violins. (Anyone who believes that neither one of these people are elitists, let me know; I have a bridge for sale.)

And when the Bosnia stuff came up, Obama was downright gracious — going out of his way to hand Hillary a pass:

…the fact of the matter is, is that both of us are working as hard as we can to make sure that we’re delivering a message to the American people about what we would do as president.Sometimes that message is going to be imperfectly delivered, because we are recorded every minute of every day. And I think Senator Clinton deserves, you know, the right to make some errors once in a while. I’m — obviously, I make some as well.

I think what’s important is to make sure that we don’t get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history…..

This was then steered into a campaign pitch instead of a criticism of Hillary.

This is not to say that Hillary didn’t have Obama on the ropes repeatedly. She did, and and she really nailed him over Pastor Wrights’s 9/11 remarks:

Obviously, one’s choice of church and pastor is rooted in what one believes is what you’re seeking in church and what kind of, you know, fellowship you find in church. But I have to say that, you know, for Pastor Wright to have given his first sermon after 9/11 and to have blamed the United States for the attack, which happened in my city of New York, would have been intolerable for me.

For those who missed the debate, this YouTube segment gives a pretty good idea.

Obama looked weak and unconvincing in his explanation of how he didn’t know what Wright had been saying — and Gibson’s questions about how he rescinded the invitation he had extended to Wright clearly made him uncomfortable.On the Pastor Wright issue, a clear win for Hillary. During the discussion of Obama’s patriotism, Hillary scored big — but Obama hit back hard — during the discussion of Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers.When Ayers’ name was mentioned, Obama jolted me with an astounding comparison between his friendship with Ayers and his friendship with Senator Coburn:

This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He’s not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn’t make much sense, George.

The fact is, is that I’m also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, who during his campaign once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions.

Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn’s statements? Because I certainly don’t agree with those either.

So this kind of game, in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, is somehow — somehow their ideas could be attributed to me — I think the American people are smarter than that. They’re not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn’t.

If the Ayers-Coburn comparison doesn’t make it into the talk radio discussions tomorrow, I’ll be surprised.

Hillary didn’t touch the Coburn reference, but zeroed in on Ayers’ detestable remarks, and noted that the Republicans would make use of them:

that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York, and I would hope to every American, because they were published on 9/11 and he said that he was just sorry they hadn’t done more. And what they did was set bombs and in some instances people died. So it is — you know, I think it is, again, an issue that people will be asking about. And I have no doubt — I know Senator Obama’s a good man and I respect him greatly but I think that this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising.

Hillary would have had him had she just stopped there. But incredibly (and stupidly, IMO) she brought up her own “baggage”:

I have a lot of baggage, and everybody has rummaged through it for years. (Laughter.) And so therefore, I have, you know, an opportunity to come to this campaign with a very strong conviction and feeling that I will be able to withstand whatever the Republican sends our way.

Bad move. By saying that, Hillary seemed to invite -the counterattack from Obama which immediately followed (his only good zinger of the evening):

SENATOR OBAMA: I’m going to have to respond to this just really quickly, but by Senator Clinton’s own vetting standards, I don’t think she would make it, since President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act than me –AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Applauds.)

MR. GIBSON: Please.

SENATOR OBAMA: — than me serving on a board with somebody for actions that he did 40 years ago.

And then this, right before the commervial break:

Look, there is no doubt that the Republicans will attack either of us. What I’ve been able to display during the course of this primary is that I can take a punch. I’ve taken some pretty good ones from Senator Clinton. And I don’t begrudge her that. That’s part of what the political contest is about.

And he looks forward to facing McCain, and Iraq, etc.

Hillary said no more about Ayers, of course. (Obama only mentioned these two terrorist pardons. Wouldn’t want to get into the FALN, would we?)

I’d be inclined to say that Obama won the Ayers round with Hillary in the debate, but I’m not sure the dust has settled on the rather peculiar Coburn comparison. He may have damaged himself; OTOH, he may not.

On war and foreign policy, I wouldn’t want to have either one of these clowns in charge. The idea of them giving orders to generals fills me with horror. But they’re both sticking to their guns and refusing to budge on the plans for withdrawal from Iraq.

No matter what the generals in the field say.

While I think both would be dangerous commanders in chief, Hillary seems slightly better in that regard. Regarding United States policy vis-a-vis Iran and Israel, Hillary sounded tougher and more committed than Obama; he thinks an attack on Israel would be “unacceptable, and the United States would take appropriate action,” while Hillary “would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States, but I would do the same with other countries in the region.”

Call me a warmonger, but I think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is more likely to sit up and pay attention to a threat of “massive retaliation” than “appropriate action.”

So Hillary not only seems better informed on foreign affairs, but she talks the toughest talk:

….we cannot permit Iran to become a nuclear weapons power. And this administration has failed in our efforts to convince the rest of the world that that is a danger, not only to us and not just to Israel but to the region and beyond.

On foreign affairs, Hillary once again was the clear winner.

While both candidates have described the economy as the major issue, they didn’t offer any major new advice; only minor quibbling about who was going to raise taxes higher, and by how much. Fortunately, this was the one night when Hillary spared me her usual braying about how badly she wants socialized health care and how she has so much experience failing to implement it back in 1993.

Oh, and they’re both going to do something about high gas prices; they’re going to investigate the bad guys and they’re going to tax, tax, tax!

Hillary says “we are going to investigate these gas prices” invokes Enron, and promises a “windfall profits tax on these outrageous profits of the oil companies,” while Obama will “investigate potential price gouging or market manipulation” and notes he has also “strongly called for a windfall profits tax.” (Nothing about getting more oil out of the ground or building new refineries, which didn’t surprise me.)

A brief word on gun control: both candidates lost. They seemed to be engaged in some sort of perverse contest to see who was better at obfuscating the documented anti-gun records of each, as well as competing to demonstrate a near-total ignorance about the Heller case. Obama said, “I confess I obviously haven’t listened to the briefs and looked at all the evidence,” while Hillary said, “I don’t know the facts.” Riiiight. (While they’re probably both lying, if they are telling the truth, neither one belongs in a legislature, much in the White House!)

In the end, nothing either candidate said changed my mind, as I still plan to vote for McCain in the fall, and I saw no new issues raised — the only genuine surprise being Obama’s peculiar Ayers-Coburn comparison. It was good to see Obama facing the heightened media scrutiny he deserves, but on the other hand, he’s the one who raised the issue of the Clinton terrorist pardons tonight, not the media.

By the way, I’m a crossover Republican who registered Democrat for strategic reasons. Again, I still think Hillary is the stronger of the two candidates, and nothing I saw tonight changed my mind.

But I’ll be glad when the “strategy” is over.

Eric Scheie is a licensed California attorney (UC Berkeley ‘78; USF Law School ‘82) currently living in the Philadelphia area. A registered Republican, war-supporting, small “l” libertarian and self-styled “culture war traitor” he writes (often satirically) about cultural issues and politics at ClassicalValues.com.

Eric Scheie blogs at Classical Values.
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