When I first tuned into the Democratic debate tonight, I started taking copious notes on who was saying what. Then I stopped. Most Americans will be going more on general impressions than word-by-word analysis, so I should too.
On policy, the most important takeaway, for me, anyway, is Gov. Richardson’s support for a permanent UN peacekeeping force. That bodes extremely well for a better thought out and more politically viable proposal to establish the UN Emergency Peace Service, that I’ve been working hard to build momentum for over the past few months. This is an idea that’s going from zero to 60 and is all of a sudden squarely in the policy mainstream.
Tonight’s debate is the first Democratic debate that I’ve recapped. I was disappointed that few if any of the questions touched on America’s declining influence in the world or the importance of cooperating with others in an interconnected world.
On the flip side, I’m very happy with the Democratic slate of candidates. Nearly all of them would make fine Presidents and most of them are solid candidates, too.
Without further ado, my impressions:
Hillary Clinton: Clearly the most polished and effective debater, Clinton came off extremely well tonight. Her message is tight, her knowledge of policy is deep, and she played to her strengths at every turn. Still, primary voters wondering how committed she is to ending the conflict in Iraq will come away unsatisfied. And more importantly, half a year into the campaign, I’m still not sure what her campaign is fundamentally about. Clinton’s rhetoric is very safe and generic, highlighting the “need for change,” for example. She still hasn’t communicated clearly what’s fueling her desire to be President. Until she does, she’ll remain vulnerable to allegations that she’s driven by raw ambition and puts politics ahead of principle. All that notwithstanding, Clinton’s effort tonight substantially helped her cause.
Barack Obama: A mixed performance. Obama’s cerebral disposition, careful use of language to highlight nuance, and ability to connect hot-button issues with more fundamental questions has made him a talk-show darling, but it’s not winning him points in a debate. Interesting to note: Obama has started lashing out at those ubiquitous special interests. I haven’t heard him do it before. My guess is that someone advised him that if you’re not going to bash Republicans, you’ve got to find another villain. Generally, Obama is going to need to answer questions more directly; I think his reluctance to say Americans in Iraq have not died in vain could leave potential voters with a bad taste in their mouths. That said, Obama started hitting the mark in the second half of the debate and by the end of the night, his responses were extremely compelling.
John Edwards: I think Edwards gained ground tonight. He clearly came off as an action-oriented candidate on poverty, health care, Iraq, and stuck to his populist, anti-special interests message. He was put on defense more than most other candidates and did reasonably well. The one question that put a chink in John’s armor, I think, was whether or not he stands by Elizabeth’s contention that he’d be a better President for women than Clinton. Then again, that’s not an easy one to parry. Edwards’s supporters will be happy with his performance on the whole.
Bill Richardson: Since he stated his support for something like UNEPS (but even more bold), I would love to say Richardson made gains. I really would. But Richardson seemed a bit scatterbrained tonight. He showcased his accomplishments and depth of knowledge effectively. But Richardson didn’t get to answer questions in his strongest areas, energy and diplomacy. And his comments were chock full of wonk-speak. He’s going to have to remember how to explain complex issues to voters on their terms. I should also note that Richardson’s YouTube ad (all candidates were asked to submit one), a reprise of one of his Presidential job search spot, is the winner in my book:
Chris Dodd: Dodd didn’t have many memorable moments tonight, good or bad. His understanding of complex issues, his boldness on energy policy, and his views – especially on diplomacy and foreign policy – are second to none. But Dodd comes off as a New England intellectual. He’s not as boring as Gore in 2000 or as wooden as Kerry in ’04, but so far, he’s no more accessible than either. My guess is he gains ground in the Northeast and in university communities but loses ground elsewhere.
Joe Biden: Biden’s trying to emerge as the straight-talk candidate for the Dems, and for the most part, it’s working. He’s avoided longwinded answers and stayed on message. His understanding of how a withdrawal from Iraq would work – coupled with his plan for federalism there – was impressive, whether or not one agrees with him on the merits of his argument (I’m sure that some who are itching for a quicker withdrawal would take issue with his position). But Biden lost big time points with me by suggesting that we need to send American troops to Darfur and, more importantly, that those who favor other options were being soft and tolerant of genocide. As Clinton, Gravel, and Richardson pointed out, there’s no way American troops could perform a peace operation as well as a robust UN force could in Darfur. American forces aren’t trained primarily for peace enforcement and nation-building and they’re stretched thin as is, thanks to deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, people in the region are very wary of American intervention – even the good guys who are pushing hard to end the atrocities in Darfur, Chad, and the Central African Republic. They don’t want American personnel on the ground; they want American diplomacy and logistical support to pave the way for African and Muslim personnel to successfully intervene through a UN mission. Biden knows better.
Dennis Kucinich: This was hands down the best debate performance I’ve seen from Kucinich. He was articulate, on point, and activist in the best possible way. He also showed a lot of discipline and foresight by articulating and repeating a message point that concisely explains his world view: “Strength Through Peace.” It’s a good one, and it will help Americans figure out what he’s about. Kucinich explained well the need for international cooperation, and his indictment of Congress’s failure to de-fund the war is clearly making the frontrunners uncomfortable. On the negative side, there were a few eyeball rollers, most notably his unconvincing effort to connect Iraq, Iran, and energy. The connection is there, but it can’t be explained in 100 words or less and isn’t as simple as Kucinich would have voters believe.
Mike Gravel: Gravel had trouble putting together coherent ideas. I often had a tough time understanding the basic gist of his arguments. His brand of righteous anger is getting old.
Anderson Cooper: Didn’t talk much – so good job.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this shakes out tomorrow.
— Scott Paul