July 24, 2007

Obama Gets Personal with You in YouTube Debate

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As much as candidates like stale debates where the questions can be anticipated and talking points can be prepared, they lost much of this control today with the YouTube/CNN debate. There were many great questions in this debate that journalists would not usually think to ask, making it easy for none of the candidates to just slide by with rhetoric. A new debate format also brought a new set of rankings compared to last debate (where my top three were Obama, Edwards, and Biden). Here are my top three candidates for this debate.

1. Obama

Obama seems to win a lot these days. Even his campaign video got the most applause. Obama demonstrated a combination of his mastery of the issues and his great speaking skills. Upon receiving a tricky question about reparations for slavery, he turned down the idea while shifting focus to reparations made by investing in education. The huge applause that followed demonstrated that Obama really connected with black voters on that issue. On a seemingly dull question about whether each candidate would work as President for minimum wage, everybody said yes, of course, but Obama took it a step farther. He talked about he could afford the minimum wage for four years given his wealth, but average Americans could not, focusing on true issue with the minimum wage. Obama knows how to connect with the voters, and it really informs him and helps him succeed in this debate format.


Will Americans give reparations for slavery?

Furthermore, with eight candidates on the stage, sometimes it is hard to stand out, but Obama found a way to clash with opponents and come out on top. When Edwards criticized Obama for not mandating health insurance, Obama had already pre-empted that argument by noting that mandates do no good if people can not afford them. When Hillary touted taking on the Pentagon for not having plans for a withdrawal, Obama praised her but wondered why she waited until now to ask for a plan. And in the best turn pulled off in the entire debate, when Gravel went after him for some questionable ways of financing his campaign, Obama pointed out that his public reporting of fundraising was the only reason why Gravel could even make such a criticism. Clashes like that cannot be scripted, and because Obama shows elements of a true debater, he could excel in both those unscripted moments as well as the unexpected YouTube questions.

Another asset about Obama involved projecting himself above everybody. He projected himself above Republicans and Democrats, acknowledging failings in both parties in their attitudes in Congress. He would reference great Presidents from either party. More importantly than that, though, he projected himself above lobbyists and special interests, a problem plaguing both parties. And he did not just deliver rhetoric when talking about refusing money from PACs and federal lobbyists. If you look at his campaign fundraising strategy, his strength lies in using his political rock star status to attract average people to contribute to his campaign so he does not need money from PACs and lobbyists. Democrats have failed on their promise to stop the negative effects of special interests and lobbying, but Obama has delivered on his promise for change in America.

2. Biden

In a cruel irony, Biden realistically cannot make up enough ground to win the nomination, but being realistic gets him closer each time. While other candidates constantly talked about cutting funding and getting all troops out instantly, Biden had the sensibility to expose all the flaws with this thinking. He noted how we would still need some troops in Iraq to protect American civilians in the green zone, how one can only move out troops so fast, how cutting funding would also cut off money to protect our soldiers from IED attacks, etc. Also, his concerns about what would realistically happen in a withdrawal led him to draw up a political solution for Iraq, while all the other candidates merely talked about withdrawals and how this war can not be won militarily.

Biden also has a long tenure in the Senate, and he did a good job of using that to his advantage while minimizing the negative effects of his long paper trail. One of the most difficult tasks candidates face involves explaining bad votes. Biden faced this dilemma since he voted for No Child Left Behind, which he would now scrap. Nonetheless, he neutralized the issue by explaining how he voted for it against his concerns because he had placed his trust in Senator Kennedy, who helped write NCLB. The Democrat base would fault someone for trusting Bush, but it would be a different story if trust was placed in Kennedy. On the other side, Biden also cited some of his past accomlishments on issues like crime and gun control. He also highlighted how we worked with Republicans to get some of these tasks done. Democrats are having a hard time doing that today, and its keeping them from moving forward on ending the Iraq War despite Republicans defecting from Bush, but Biden has cast himself as someone who can overcome this critical flaw.

Darfur also gave Biden another chance to shine. With one video question on Darfur featuring kids from a refugee camp, some candidates talked about the need to accelerate diplomacy while not using American troops. In a poignant rebuke, Biden compared that logic to some of the faulty logic used when dealing with notorious war criminal Slobodon Milosevic, pointing out that by time diplomacy works, those kids in the video would already be dead. Biden once again had a strong showing tonight, and moments like that highlight the success of his unique strategy in the debate.


How do we get beyond empty promises for Darfur?

3. Clinton

When it comes to the best one-liners, nobody can top Hillary. She has a good sense of timing on when to make an inspirational statement to draw huge applause, especially on the issue of women’s rights. One time, though, she tried to interject out-of-turn on what really mattered with global warming, but Anderson Cooper quickly corrected her for getting out of line, making her look a bit impatient and rude (in general, Cooper did a pretty good job or reining in the candidates when they got out of hand, especially since he had a tough group to work with). One concern I had about her was that she could talk up a good debate but ultimately proved lacking in actual plans or ideas. She continued to exhibit this flaw at the beginning of the debate, but improved a lot as the debate progressed.

Clinton talks about delivering on her own merits, not because she’s a woman or because her husband’s Bill, and she started to show it, too. She responded well to a question on if she’s a liberal, opting to use a less loaded term, progressive, while highlighting all the positive qualities of progressives. Also, dealing with another question on whether or not to talk to people like Chavez or Ahmadinejad her first year, Hillary gave a well-thought answer. She showed the need for diplomacy while focusing on the need to have lower-level talks first to ensure that their intentions are true and that Hillary will not just become a propaganda tool. If she starts doing this on a more regular basis, she can ensure that her lead in the polls does not disappear, but for now her victory is still not inevitable.


Are you a “liberal?”

Mike Wacker is a blogger and an Assistant Web Editor at The Sun. He can be contacted at mwacker@cornellsun.com.