Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Who won, who lost?

by Andrew Romano

Plain and simple, they saved the best for last. After all kinds of ridiculousness (remember the UFO question, anyone?) the last two Democrats standing sat down tonight for a substantive--dare we say wonktastic?--discussion of serious issues ranging from health care (16 minutes!) and NAFTA to Israel and Iraq. It's a cliche to say this, but I think the voters of Ohio and Texas were the "winners" tonight; while pundits and political junkies know much of this material already, I suspect that people in Cleveland and San Antonio and elsewhere actually learned something about where the candidates stand on the issues.

Did Clinton change the dynamic of the race--which, after 11 straight losses, isn't exactly working in her favor? No. But I didn't expect her to, and I'm not sure she could have. Yes, the New York senator made some mistakes. Early on, she complained about getting the first question time and time again, implying that the media is treating her unfairly. Whether or not that's true, it looked whiny, especially when she cited an SNL skit to belittle Obama. ("Ask Barack if he … needs another pillow.") And I can imagine some people carping about her inability to get the name of Putin's successor--Dmitri Medvedev--out of her mouth intact. ("Med-medvedova, whatever.") But by and large,

Clinton was as strong and substantial as ever. It was good to hear her admit that she wants a do-over on her Iraq vote, and I think she was smart to emphasize the fact that she's a "fighter" as early and often as possible. Along with reminding women voters of what her candidacy represents (and carefully casting herself as a victim, New Hampshire-style) it's probably her best remaining option. She made both points clearly and forcefully tonight.

That said, it would be hard not to acknowledge that Obama was at least as effective. As I wrote earlier, the policy focus actually benefited the Illinois senator. One of the most persistent criticisms of his campaign is that it's all style, no substance--so tonight's in-depth discussion gave voters a chance to see his wonky side, which is somewhat difficult to display at a 20,000-person stadium rally. He acquitted himself well. By claiming that she offers solutions, not just speeches, Clinton has set the bar pretty high for herself--she needs to show that she can outwonk Obama every chance she gets. Because that didn't happen tonight, he essentially neutralized her advantage on the "specifics" front. Plus his cool, deflective style--see: the difference between "denouncing on rejecting" Farrakhan's statements, the "turban photo" flap, "bombing" Pakistan, negative campaigning, etc.--served simultaneously to minimize Clinton's attacks and make her sound thin-skinned (which, as Noam Scheiber of TNR notes, is "the opposite of the battle-tested, Republican-slayer she purports to be.")

Take her dismissal of Obama's 2002 speech warning against war in Iraq. When she pointed out that his actual Senate votes--once he actually had to cast them--closely matched hers, Obama showed his skill for parrying. "Once we had driven the bus into the ditch, there were only so many ways we could get out," he said. "The question is: Who's making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch?" Simply put, he's far more comfortable as the frontrunner than he ever was as an underdog.

So who won, and who lost (other than the voters)? In my humble opinion, nobody and nobody (although I have to give a shout-out to Tim Russert, who gets my award for best moderator of the season). That's bad news for Clinton, of course, and good news for Obama. But as a reader named Chris wrote near the end of the evening, "Can I say that I find both of these people incredibly impressive and inspirational? I'm very proud of both of them." As divisive as this primary election has been, after tonight I can imagine that many of his fellow Democrats would agree.

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