The Philly Forum
04-17-2008
It has been fascinating to read all of the reaction to last night’s presidential debate in Philadelphia. While I would agree with some of the commentary suggesting that Barack Obama had a rough night, I’m not as pessimistic about his performance as some other political observers seem to be. I would place myself somewhere between the D+ given to Obama by the New York Times’ David Brooks and the B+ assigned by Time’s Mark Halperin, but much closer to Halperin on this. Obama certainly seemed tired, with a strained voice contributing to his overall subdued demeanor, but I did not find his responses to be all that far outside the norm for what he typically brings to the debate format.
 
The bigger concern for Obama is the way in which the relentless sequence of topics in the debate’s first several segments painted a remarkable tableau of all the personal gaffes and question marks that have driven much of the tactical warfare against him. Whether you believe (as does Brooks) that Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos deserve credit for this approach to moderating, or should be taken to task for it (as does Tom Shales in the Washington Post), the bigger issue is that Obama as the Democratic nominee will most definitely face all of this again in the general election. Whether the sum total is sufficient to sink him as a candidate remains to be seen. Hillary Clinton argued yes last night. We will have to wait to see whether she is right about the general election, but I don’t think it will in the primaries, which of course is very bad news for her.
 
As for Hillary Clinton’s performance, in these sorts of situations she typically has two options. She can take the high road and act presidential, as we have seen her do in other debates, or she can go on the attack. It was clear to anyone watching last night that Clinton went for the jugular. As I noted above, Clinton wielded her it’ll be worse in the general election argument to suggest that the litany of personal issues raised by the moderators would imperil Obama as the nominee. As other political observers have pointed out, however, when Clinton goes negative like this, her unfavorable rating has a tendency to climb. So, there is certainly the possibility of a backlash against her aggressive performance last night, but we won’t know for a few more days whether it materializes at the polls.


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