In the Arena

The Debate

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Oy. I have no idea who won the piss-fight between Clinton and Obama…although I suspect that it did neither of them much good. Edwards did well to remain above the fray–when he went after the others, it was as an equal opportunity opponent, usually on matters of substance. So good for him.

My personal focus group–apolitical Swamp-spouse–came into the evening undecided but resigned to fulfilling her civic obligation. She lasted through the initial colloquy on stimulus packages, but abandoned the fray as the piss-fight erupted and repaired to safety of the bedroom and her novel. Afterwards, she said the fighting made her feel uncomfortable but–after obnoxious, unsubtle prodding–conceded that she probably would vote for Clinton because “she seemed to know more.”

Therefore, some observations:

1. Those of us who watch these things for a living tend to undervalue the specific policy mastery that Clinton brings to each issue.

2. Clinton’s attempts to attack Obama’s legislative record are not only lame, they are also fundamentally dishonest. Does she actually believe that Obama wanted sex shops near schools in Illinois? Does she actually believe that after initially opposing the war, his subsequent votes on Iraq–identical to hers–are reflective of anything other than his belief that, with American troops on the ground and chaos in the streets, it would be irresponsible to cut off funding for the war? (Later, after the 2006 attack on the Al Askariya mosque transformed the Iran-Iraq war into a clear Sunni-Shi’ite struggle, both Obama and Clinton decided it was time to leave and changed their positions again…another reasonable calibration in an extremely complicated situation.) So far as I can tell, the only significant substantive difference Clinton has raised so far is Obama’s vote in favor of the disgraceful 2005 Energy Bill at the behest of downstate Illinois ethanol and coal interests. But why didn’t she bring that up in the debate?

3. Obama is probably making a mistake letting the Clintons’ semi-skeevy attacks on his record affect him this way. He’s on the defensive constantly. Not a good thing.

4. One area where Obama should be on the defensive is health care, but neither Clinton nor Edwards were willing to explain the real difference between their plans and his: About 1/3 of the 47 million uninsured are people (young people, mostly) who can afford insurance but choose not to buy it. Clinton and Edwards would force them to buy in; Obama wouldn’t. (All three plans would subsidize those who can’t afford to buy in, so Obama’s inference that Clinton and Edwards would be laying “penalties” on the poor is nonsense). The mandated presence of all adult citizens in a universal system is not merely a moral or civic necessity, it is also necessary to expand the risk pool (healthy young people help pay for less healthy working poor and elderly people) and to create the circumstances necessary for the most important mandate: that insurance companies cover everyone, regardless of pre-existing conditions. The reason why neither Clinton nor Edwards are willing to be clear on the issue is this–they don’t want to lose the votes of those young people who don’t want to be forced into pay for health insurance.

Aside from the substantive points raised above, though, I have absolutely no idea who won, who did well or how this plays.