April 27, 2007

Debate Drones

I skipped watching the first Democratic presidential debate, but according to all accounts, I didn't miss too much. The New York Times tried to frame the evening in the best possible light, but even the Gray Lady conceded that it turned into an ennui to forget:

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was professorial and emphatic as she spoke Thursday night about health care, Iraq and whether Wal-Mart was good for America (a “mixed blessing,” she decided) .

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, by reputation a dynamic performer, was reserved and cautious as he talked about a donor with a shady past, how he would respond to a terrorist attack on American shores and his biggest mistake (not doing more to stop Congress from intervening in the Terri Schiavo case, he said).

The setting was the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2008 campaign, a surprisingly sedate and meandering affair, filled with as many moments of awkward humor as memorable insight into the qualifications of the candidates or the policy differences among them. ...

The debate, at South Carolina State University, was shown on MSNBC and moderated by the NBC news anchor Brian Williams, who at times appeared to struggle with the unwieldy field of eight candidates whose remarks were packed into a 90-minute event; at several points he resorted to asking for a show of hands to try to spotlight similarities or differences among them. (None went up when Mr. Williams asked if any of the others on stage supported the call by Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio to begin impeachment proceedings against Dick Cheney, the vice president).

At another point, when Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, one of the most verbose senators, delivered a one-word answer that drew laughter from the audience, when Mr. Williams asked whether he had the discipline to lead the free world.

“Yes,” he said. The audience laughed at his brevity. Mr. Biden, looking proud of himself, said nothing else, as Mr. Williams silently if slightly uncomfortably waited for him to expand on his remarks.

One has to credit any event in which Joe Biden, a man known for his love for his own voice, restricts himself toa single syllable. Unfortunately, this is the one event where people watch to learn the candidates' positions. "Listless" was the one descriptive used by Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny that seems to sum up the event.

Even terrorist talk apparently did not rouse the Democrats from their stupor. Tigerhawk live-blogged the debate last night, and reported what looks like a minor Michael Dukakis moment for Obama and Edwards:

To Obama: "If we learned that two American cities were hit by terrorists and we further learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had been the world of al Qaeda, how would you change the U.S. military stance overseas as a result?"

Obama: Talks about our domestic emergency response. Then says we need good intelligence, even though the question presumed that we knew. Says we should not "alienate the international community." We need to talk.

Me: Obama totally avoided the question, refusing to say a single thing about our military stance.

Edwards (same question): I would make certain we knew who was responsible, and then I would act swiftly and strongly. Then I would want to know how this happened without us knowing in advance.

Me: These are very cerebral, "talking points" answers. I think Williams was looking for a passionate response, and that these guys blew it.

Same question to Clinton: "Having been a senator on 9/11, I understand the horror of that sort of attack. I think a president must move as swiftly as prudent to retaliate." Lots of emphasis on reliation. "That doesn't mean we should go looking for other fights. Let's focus on those who have attacked us and do everything we can to destroy them."

Me: Hillary crushed Edwards and Obama on this question. They looked like were deer-in-the-headlights, and bleated on irrelevantly. Clinton rolled through them, focusing on the need for retaliation. On that answer, she would have my vote (if somebody put a gun to my head and made me vote for a Democrat).

Unfortunately, she gave that one back when she claimed that the Virgina Tech massacre was the fault of the federal government. Huh? Was V-Tech a federal facility? She claimed that Cho's access to guns after his mental problems was a federal problem -- one that she and Bill made sure was solved during the Clinton administration -- but the problem was in Virginia state law, not the federal law. The federal law had not changed since the Clintons left the White House.

And besides, the correct answer was that the fault lies with Cho.

I have a deep skepticism about televised debates in any case. It's usually a forum for posturing and gotchas, where the only insight one gets is whether candidates have a quick enough wit to keep pace. It tells nothing else about a candidate that one couldn't glean from a campaign website and a little research, and often tells less than nothing at all. This appears to be the case with last night's debate, where America got to see nine varieties of political vanilla.


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Comments (15)

Posted by james23 [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 8:26 AM

Obama was a deer in the headlights? How can that be? Pundits on the left and right have vouched for his brilliance and poise.

Posted by Jack Okie [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 8:34 AM

Captain, if we had real debates rather than quiz shows / press conferences it might be more interesting and informative. Too bad no one in either party has the guts to do so.

Posted by pilsener [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 9:02 AM

How do we get Mark Steyn as a questioner on these debates?

My biggest problem is lack of hard-nosed follow-up when someone gives a BS answer. These debates are portrayed as revealing interviews for the most important job in the world. In reality, they function like beauty contests:

"Mrs. Clinton, what's your view on world peace?"

Panel Discussion: "I thought she handled that tricky question really well - serious, but likeable."

Posted by bRight & Early [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 9:05 AM

For a real dear-in-the-headlights look, the prize went to John Edwards when he was asked who was his moral authority. His pause was the longest I can ever remember during a debate.

Posted by Angry Dumbo [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 9:29 AM

Embarrassing. The questions posed couldn't have been softer or more gently delivered by Larry King with a french tickler taped to his chin.

Brian Williams and Chris Matthews give new meaning to dumb blonde.

Posted by Barnestormer [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 9:31 AM

"...dear-in-the-headlights look." That's good. Must have been either Elizabeth or Joseph Torrenueva who noticed.

Posted by skep41 [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 9:36 AM

What a waste of time. While there are factions and debates amongst the Republicans the Dems follow the party line in lockstep. They all want defeat, high taxes, suppression of conservative news sources, nationalized health care and a judiciary that will enact and enforce every faddish PC notion that comes down the pike. The mouth-breathers that are their constituency were all watching some mind-numbing drivel on some other channel anyway. Those fine citizens will regain consciousness in time to select the candidate with the most compelling sob story or the nicest hairdo, ala American Idol.

Posted by Angry Dumbo [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 9:58 AM

The "debate" had the feel of a comedy sketch on the old Carol Burnett show (Biden was Harvey Korman and Kusinich was Tim Conway with Edwards as the handsome Lyle Waggoner). The players knew their lines but were free to "ad lib" and the studio audience knew when to applaud.

Hillary of course was Carol. I agree with Captain Ed. Hillary may have been wooden reciting her scripted responses, but hers was routinely the only serious adult response in the room. Hillary made the men in the room look small, shallow, and insignificant. Supporting players in the Hillary Show.

Posted by Larry J [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 11:22 AM

I can see the campaign slogans now:
"Forward to Defeat!" and "Please don't hurt me!"

Posted by Stephen Macklin [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 11:23 AM

"The setting was the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2008 campaign"

Actually it was the third (scheduled) debate. They never had the first two because they are all so completely terrified of Brit Hume!

Posted by Brooklyn [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 6:32 PM


best wishes to you and the First Mate...

i was watching the Special Report Panel, and i thought Charles K was actually taking Hillary's fake claims of 'retaliation' seriously...

what gives?

do some Conservative Elites, NOT remember the 8 years of Clinton Appeasement, ignoring the threats of Islamic Terrorists, even after they bombed the WTC in 1993?

this is going to be a long, painful election, if some pundits, buy into Hillary's deceit every step of the way...

Posted by pilsener [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 7:06 PM

Brooklyn -

The Hillary questions we will never hear are:

What was your role in advising on counter terrorism policy during your husband's administration? Did you recommend apprehending Bin Laden, destroying Al Qaeda, or retaliating for the USS Cole?

Posted by conservative democrat [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 9:48 PM

Can't wait to bash the gop debate next Thursday. Lets see you have mister-gang of 14, the LIBERAL ex mayor of NY, and the Mormon flip-flopper with exquisite hair, should be fun to watch the official start of the gop civil war. Gentlemen go to your corners and come out fighting.

Posted by Brooklyn [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2007 11:24 PM

well stated Pilsener...

great question...

i would like to here, "Mrs. Clinton, why did the Clinton Administration make it policy to lie about the Genocide in Rwanda?"

perhaps the Captain could have question contest on what CQ readers would suggest Ms. Rodham to answer in the debate...

How about ...
"What did Sandy Berger hide in his pants?"

Posted by Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 28, 2007 10:44 PM

So, Obama says he wishes he would have "done more" to stop Congress from interfering with the Terri Shaivo affair?

What did he do at all?

It would have been trivial for him to stop it. He was in the Senate. The Senate passed the bill with a unanimous consent request. All he had to do, all ANY democrat had to do, was show up and object.

Tom Harkin asked them to go along with him, and they did. NO senator has a right now to complain about what was done with Terri, because they ALL consented.