Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Thoughts on the NPR Debate

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 412

The NPR debate just wrapped up in Des Moines. Here are some thoughts about the candidates' performance, in alphabetical order.

Joe Biden - Another strong debate performance from Biden today. On all of the three spotlight topics of the debate, Biden spoke forthrightly on not just the details of the issues of Iran, China and immigration, but the specific policy measures he would put in place to address those issues. I thought Biden's point about immigrants learning English - that there hasn't been an immigration wave in our history that has not embraced English as a primary language in its second generation - was a particular highlight. But the home run of the day came in this exchange with Hillary Clinton on Iran and Clinton's vote in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman resolution:

Clinton: "None of us is advocating a rush to war."
Biden: "Terminology matters.It's not about not advocating a rush to war. I'm advocating no war."

I think Biden won the debate in that moment.

Hillary Clinton - for the most part, Hillary Clinton came across well enough to prevent negative press, but I didn't find her performance to be as compelling as in previous debates. It may have been the radio format, but in her answers at this debate, Hillary Clinton sounded like a candidate who's trying hard not to lose, rather than one who is "in it to win it." Senator Clinton is rarely tentative in her debate performances, nor was she today; but increasingly, I get the impression that there's a filter between her beliefs and her words that conveys the impression that she's being more and more careful on the stump. Clinton is in a a real fight to win here in Iowa, and obviously isn't crazy about it.

Chris Dodd - Dodd had some good moments today, particularly on the issue of China and trade. The spin email from the Dodd campaign summarized his performance on this topic pretty fairly:

Sen. Dodd, who called for an immediate suspension of food, toys and pet food imported from China over the summer after safety concerns were cited, characterized the United States’ trade relationship with China as ‘adversarial.’ “When you manipulate your currency as they (China) do; when you’re in violation of the World Trade Organization; when you employ slave labor in the production of your manufactured goods; when you deny access on your shelves to the products and services we produce, it is not a competition, it’s adversarial. We need to stand up and say: “This is a market you want to be in. If you want to be here, then you’re going to have to play like an adult.”

On the other hand, Dodd also pledged to put only toys made in Iowa under the tree this Christmas. I can hear his two daughters crying about that from here.

John Edwards - While the tone of today's debate was more relaxed that the last TV debate, John Edwards still got in some smacks at Hillary Clinton which I'm sure pleased his supporters. The release of yesterday's National Intelligence Estimate downgrading the urgency of any nuclear weapons threat from Iran poses additional problems for Senator Clinton in defending her Kyl-Lieberman vote, and John Edwards worked hard to exploit that. Clinton has characterized her vote as one in favor of diplomacy with Iran, a point with which John Edwards took issue today:

"Declaring a military group sponsored by the state of Iran a terrorist organization, that's supposed to be diplomacy?" Edwards said at one point. "This has to be considered in the context that Senator Clinton has said she agrees with George Bush terminology that we're in a global war on terror, then she voted to declare a military group in Iran a terrorist organization. What possible conclusion can you reach other than we are at war?"

Edwards did rather poorly, however, in struggling to respond to a question about the specific actions he would take to extend basic rights to undocumented workers as an interim measure while enacting comprehensive immigration reform.

Mike Gravel - Here's to maybe the last chance we'll have to listen to Mike Gravel grumble nonsense to power.

Dennis Kucinich - Nothing new from Dennis4President today. There was an odd moment at the end of the debate when he seemed to be saying he hadn't made up his mind about the standards of conduct to which the president and vice president should be held, and whether Bush and Cheney should be impeached. As someone who has introduced articles of impeachment in the House of Representatives against Vice President Cheney, you would think Kucinich would have reached closure on this issue. Quite strange, but there again, nothing new.

Barack Obama - Obama seemed to disappear for long stretches of today's debate. When he did speak, he avoided making any problems for himself, but the audio-only format didn't do any favors for Senator Obama's often deliberate and low-key Q&A style.

Today's radio debate almost makes me wish television had never been invented. It is so much more productive to get candidates together in a setting like today's at the Iowa Historical Museum and speak over radio than it is to put everybody on camera. Doing debates via radio is infinitely cheaper than putting on a televised debate; anybody who has covered any of the TV debates this cycle, as I did at Drake University back in August, can attest to what a mammoth undertaking those are, with all the production expense that entails. Because television is so much more expensive than radio, the urgency is to cover as many topics as possible in the space of two hours, with the result that all substance is lost and there is only time for sound bites.

Radio, with its much lower production costs, would enable a number of debates similar to today's, focused on a few specific topics, with the result of a much more substantive discussion.

Ain't gonna happen, though. Bummer.

Here's a link to a transcript from CQ Transcriptions, via the New York Times.

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