Election 2008

Dem Debate No Game-Changer

No one won. No one lost. And Clinton needed more than a tie to change the course of this race.
Based on the mega-hype surrounding tonight's Democratic debate in Cleveland, Hillary Clinton needed a soaring victory to resurrect her ailing candidacy. Barack Obama, after a slew of victories in February, just needed to play for a tie.

Both candidates held their own, but there was no defining moment, breakout line or critical game-changer. So, in that sense, Obama won. Clinton will need more than a debate performance between now and March 4 to change the nature of this race.

Tonight was the night when it became obvious just how long this contests has gone on. These candidates have been out on the road for over a year, preparing to run for even longer, and it shows. At the beginning of the debate, Clinton looked visibly irritated and frustrated, making a lame joke about the media's infatuation with Obama. "Maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," Clinton cracked. That went over about as well as the "Change you can Xerox" line.

The big loser of the night was undoubtedly Tim Russert, whose inane gotcha questioning of both candidates marked a new low for the veteran broadcaster. Debates, especially what could be the final one between Clinton and Obama, should not become stand-ins for Meet the Press. Most voters don't care that Louis Farrakhan endorsed Obama, or when Clinton releases her tax returns, or whether the candidates know the name of Vladmir Putin's hand-picked "successor" in Russia (for the record, his name's Dmitry Medvedev).

Voters would like to know about universal healthcare, but they don't want the candidates to spend sixteen minutes arguing about the intricacies of healthcare mandates. They care less about what a politician said about NAFTA over a decade ago than what they're going to do about current and future trade deals now. Most Democrats like both Clinton and Obama. It remains a mystery why it's so hard for members of the press to figure that out.

There were a few revealing moments. Clinton said she wished she could take back her vote for the war in Iraq. If she'd have bucked her political strategists and foreign policy advisers and voted against the Senate's resolution, she'd probably be the Democratic nominee right now. Obama said he was wrong to stand silent as the Senate provided life support to a vegetating Terri Schiavo.

Obama gives crisper answers than he did at the outset of this campaign. He's better at speaking in soundbites and slapping away smears. His answers about foreign policy proved that, despite what Senator Clinton has said about him, he's ready to take on John McCain and become Commander-In-Chief.

Clinton is a knowledgeable and able debater, but even in comfortable settings, she seems to be swimming against the tide. Her campaign has begun blaming the media for poisoning the minds of the millions of Democratic voters who have expressed a preference for Obama. But she entered the race as the presumptive nominee and retained the aura of "inevitability" for the better part of the campaign. So if Clinton ran as the frontrunner, why didn't her campaign expect to be treated as one?

These debates increasingly tell us less and less. Perhaps it's a good thing that tonight's may be the last one for quite some time.
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation and a Ralph Shikes Fellow at the Public Concern Foundation. He's currently based in D.C.
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