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The Running Ticket Blog: The Dem debate live

January 31, 2008 |  4:54 pm

These comments are in chronological order from the top, reading down.
Share your thoughts with Andrew Malcolm and Don Frederick on tonight's debate. Jump to the comment form.

Well, Don, here we go. The last big rhetorical confrontation between the last two Democratic candidates standing before Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when all those delegates are picked across the country in nearly two dozen states. Scroll to the bottom for updates.

It'll be interesting to see how confrontational Hillary Clinton is, after all the criticism for her husband's scorched-earth campaigning across South Carolina last week, and how confrontational Barack Obama is, after all the hubbub over his perceived snub of Clinton on the Senate floor before President Bush's State of the Union Monday night.

She has said she reached out her hand and it's still reaching out. She also just happens to bring it up at every opportunity.

Think we can guarantee the debate will start with a handshake?

Obama, it seems to me, has shown a growing maturity and comfort with the debate format. At first, even when he criticized her, he spoke to the moderator and camera. Now, he regularly turns toward her to address his criticism, small but important gesture for people passing video judgment on who might be their commander in chief.

Clinton has always shown a clear command of the wonky issue stuff. But -- yes, it is an unfair double standard -- when she got in her zinger last time about Obama's friendship with Rezko "the slum landlord," some thought she came across as unduly harsh, perhaps catty. (Obama, of course, opened that can of worms by taking a shot at her service on Wal-Mart's board of directors.)

Hard balance for a female to show the strength while remaining feminine. I'll bet she's worked at it since.

--Andrew Malcolm

*

No initial handshake as Obama and Clinton walked onto the stage -- so if it occurred, if was out of camera range. And, for the most part, the pair did not exchange pleasantries as they posed for photographs, though Obama did whisper something into Clinton's ear.

-- Don Frederick

*

Perhaps wanting to nix lingering attention to the "snub," Obama makes a point of saying in his opening statement (a wrinkle not included in Wednesday night's Republican debate, which featured four candidates) that he was friendly with Clinton before the campaign, and would be her friend after it, regardless of how it turns out.

-- Don Frederick

*

Asked, in the debate's first question, to spell out the differences between her and Obama, Clinton predictably mentions that her healthcare policy starts out making universal coverage the goal. Then, she revisits a distinction that surfaced last summer, but had faded from view of late -- Obama's statement that he, as president, would readily meet directly with the leaders of rogue states.

Clinton criticized that remark at the time. And tonight, she said she would pursue a foreign policy that is "realistic and optimistic, but we start with realism." That means, she elaborates, that she would be less willing than Obama to sit down with rogue-state leaders.

-- Don Frederick

*

No disrespect to the Republicans who still have four candidates running, at least for another week. But this debate with only two really allows time for deeper answers and fewer simplified stump answers. Get the feeling I'm learning more about each of them. Instead of the stupid 30-second answers or raising hands when each party had 8 or 9.

Remember the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates for the Senate seat from Illinois in the 1850s? Abe and Stephen got together for a three-hour discussion, just the two of them. Back and forth, making points, arguing, answering back. Maybe they had bathroom breaks, but no commercial breaks. And no moderators like Anderson Cooper apportioning debate time unfairly, as he did so obviously last night to Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. Three hours they went at it.

And they did seven of them around the state. Not a bad model.

--Andrew Malcolm

*

At the debate's break, the heated exchanges between Obama and Clinton during their get-together last week in South Carolina (when John Edwards was still part of the mix) have been lacking.

There was a minor spat over the touchy issue of driver licenses for illegal immigrants, but it was tame compared to the brickbats the pair were tossing at each other in the Palmetto State.

The bottom line on the immigration topic was that both would seek the type of comprehensive change that Congress has been unable to agree upon.

-- Don Frederick

*

It was about an hour into the debate when a question was asked directly about Ted Kennedy's much-publicized endorsement at Obama. But by that point, Obama already had worked in two references to the Democratic icon -- once during the discussion of health care, again during the discussion of immigration.

The use of Kennedy's name during the health care segment was effective -- Obama said that in backing him, Kennedy believed his prescription for achieving universal coverage, although not as aggressive as Clinton's would work. Still, Obama must guard against using Kennedy as cover too often.

-- Don Frederick

*

Barring a sudden shift in the debate's final minutes, it may be remembered as the night Clinton and Obama targeted Republicans -- more than each other.

Obama got off a good line about Mitt Romney, when discussing expertise in dealing with the economy. Romney, of course, has stressed his skills in that area. But Obama cracked that Romney "hasn't gotten a very good return on his investment" in his presidential campaign.

Obama also took a swipe at John McCain's remark that America might have a military presence in Iraq for 100 years.

Clinton got the biggest response of the night when she reprised a line she's used before about the prospective Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton White House tenures. It took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, she said -- clearly knowing it was a surefire line -- and it might take a Clinton to clean up after the second.

A bit odd she said "might." A show of modesty, perhaps.

-- Don Frederick

*

Who knew that CNN's Wolf Blitzer would present Clinton's with perhaps her trickiest moment?

Blitzer cut to the chase after Clinton, for the umpteenth time, explained why she voted for the measure authorizing military force in Iraq and why she wasn't inclined to apologize for that vote. So, Blitzer interjected, you were "naive" in trusting Bush?

Clinton, obviously, disagreed with that characterization and it earned Blitzer some boos from the crowd. But it was worth a try.

If the start of the debate -- when healthcare was dwelled on -- played to Clinton's strengths, the discussion on Iraq gave Obama a chance -- again for the umpteenth time -- to stress that he got it right (from the Democratic point of view) in opposing an invasion of Iraq from the start.

-- Don Frederick

*

Then came the inevitable question about an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama partnership for the general election, what CNN's Blitzer called "a dream ticket."

For either to answer that would mean they'd contemplated defeat. So clearly neither would. Obama jumped in first, acknowledged that anyone would want Hillary on their ticket and said it would be "premature and presumptuous" to speculate on a vice president with so much of the nomination campaign yet to occur.

But then, surprisingly, and showing his maturity and new deftness in recent months as he matured in the debate process, which had been difficult for him at first, Obama took the question and twisted it into a mini-speech on the kind of people he would want in his administration "to restore hope" (there's that Obama word again) for millions of Americans at home caring for their children and struggling with their mortgages, etc. He got applause.

In the past, as when he, Clinton and John Edwards were once asked their greatest weakness, he answered the question directly: he keeps a rather messy office. The others took it into areas like feeling too passionate about changing America. For several days Obama himself told that story himself on the trail as an example of a lesson.

Clinton tonight said she agreed with everything Barack had said and did a little riff of her own on how united Democrats would be when the primary season is over and they face the Republicans.

--Andrew Malcolm

*

Wolf asked a question on many people's minds tonight, a question that Clinton has been asked before and was prepared for. If she can't control her husband on the hustings of South Carolina, how could she control him in the White House? (No, not that kind of control.)

Clinton let out that increasingly famous laugh. Then proceeded to not answer the question. She said, "Both Barack and I have very passionate spouses who promote and defend us at every opportunity." She said how much she appreciated that and that when she was in the White House she would seek advice from a broad range of advisors but would be the final decision-maker.

Of course, none of that answer acknowledged that Obama's spouse is not a former president with the public podium that brings and that, so far, Michelle Obama has not injected Bill Clinton's lily-white race into the campaign, nor compared him in a demeaning way to past ultimately unsuccessful candidates of his race like, oh, say, Harold Stassen.

--Andrew Malcolm

*

Well, they may not have started the evening off with a much-watched-for handshake, but they proceeded with decorum. And ended happily ever after.

Throughout the evening as Clinton answered or didn't answer her questions, Obama, who used to stand and stare straight ahead, would turn toward his opponent and listen intently, sometimes tilting his head with interest and sometimes jotting down notes with, did you notice, his left hand. Another left-handed potential president like four of the last six actual presidents--Clinton, Bush I, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

At the end, smiling, perhaps because it was over, Obama stood, towering over the minute Clinton. He turned toward her again and placed his hand on her chair back to politely pull it out as she rose.

Then, no doubt completely unaware of the millions of people and cameras watching, the two warring candidates leaned into each other's ears and exchanged words that must have been hilarious because they were both smiling and laughing and patting each other's arms. Really good friends obviously.

Now come a few days of furious campaigning and the Big Day, Tuesday.

--Andrew Malcolm

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