In dramatic debate, Clinton and Obama unleash against each other

Tonight's debate was the most fiery we have seen yet in the Democratic race. The first hour was especially intense, as Clinton and Obama unleashed on each other, touching every issue that their campaigns have been warring on over the past few months -- including (stunningly) Obama's relationship with Rezko and Clinton's ties to Wal-Mart. In the most heated segment, John Edwards reversed course from prior debates and repeatedly attacked Obama, placing the Illinois Senator at the center of a crossfire. Obama managed to extricate himself from that without too much damage but he spent much of the first hour offering explanation after explanation for his record and past votes -- a position Hillary had found herself trapped in for months.

The clip of the most intense back-and-forth has already been posted on You Tube so do watch it here if you missed the debate. Tensions flared when Obama was asked about Clinton's attacks on his lack of fiscal responsibility. Using the question as a springboard, Obama replied that the criticism was simply untrue and blasted the Clinton couple for spreading "inaccurate statements" about him. In her response (in which she used the pronoun "our" to refer to her criticism...), Clinton attacked Obama head-on for his comments on "good Republican ideas" and for his flip-flops on opposing the war. It is “difficult to get a straight answer” from Obama, said Clinton: “You know, Senator Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.”

One of the exhibits she used to make her point was Obama's history of voting present in the Illinois state Senate. This was the first time the subject was brought up in a debate so directly, and Clinton used it to question his willingness to take tough positions. Obama responded by giving a detailed explanation for why he voted present on the particular bill that Clinton was referring to which, frankly, is not a good debating tactic as Obama found himself boxed in a defensive position for an extended amount of time.

John Edwards surprised nearly everyone by siding with Clinton and going after him for the present votes as well. To Obama's "You can't vote for something and then apologize for it" (one of his most pointed attacks on Edwards), Edwards responded "It's important to be able to vote on hard issues." Most importantly, Edwards went after Obama's defense that Clinton was looking for any past vote she could find to raise questions. Obama said: “Comb my 4,000 votes in Illinois, choose one, try to present it in the worst possible light.” Edwards responded: "What you're criticizing her for you've done to us... you've picked that vote and you've picked that vote."

And then there were the purely personal hits that no one saw coming. Obama launched the first one: "When I was out there working in the streets, seeing people losing their jobs, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart." And Clinton responded: "I was fighting when you were practicing law and representing your contributor Rezko in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago."

The second part of the debate was more subdued. The candidates were no longer sitting at their podiums but in chairs and, despite Wolf Blitzer's insistence that "all rules were now off" the discussion remained mostly polite. The candidates must have realized that they were going at it a bit too much in the first hour and pulled back. There were still important moments -- especially the debate over which candidate was the most electable against "probable GOP nominee" John McCain and Obama's attack on Hillary that you can't beat McCain by running almost like McCain.

In another important dynamic in this second half, Clinton and Obama once again moved quickly to dismiss any racial tensions and deny that any one should vote for them because she is a woman or because he is black. But Obama was very effective in this segment when speaking of the need to continue fighting for racial justice. On the other hand, Edwards's comment about being a white male felt kind of off (and that followed a strange moment at which Edwards seemed genuinely annoyed when Obama said "In a race where you have an African-American and a woman and... John").

So how did the debate affect the campaign? The reversal of roles alone has to satisfy the Clinton camp, as they have been hoping to shift the spotlight to Obama's record for quite a while now. The Illinois Senator was strong throughout and at no point did he concede a point to his adversaries, but it is never good to be on the defensive for a full hour. Sure, it means he is ahead in South Carolina; but remember how Hillary Clinton's being defensive in Philadelphia back in October made her stumble badly.

At the end of the day, Clinton's goal is to make Obama look like a normal politician -- one that is also making political choices and misses difficult votes, one that has no right to claim the moral high ground when he too is in contact with lobbyists and he too flip-flops on issues. Clinton calculates that Obama's power comes from his image as a different kind of public figure, an inspirational leader who is involved in another kind of politics. If the two candidates are perceived as two Democratic politicians vying for a nomination, it is hard to see how Clinton loses.

That said, Edwards and Clinton took a risk tonight, and Obama could come out of the debate stronger than he entered. For one, Obama has often been criticized as being too weak when under attack and as being unable to fight back; he clearly proved tonight that he does not crack under pressure. Second, remember that the tag-teaming against Clinton in the New Hampshire debate probably helped the New York Senator rally the female vote. Tonight, it was two white candidates surrounding and attacking a black politician in a night in which race and MLK was on many people's minds. In the South Carolina campaign, the Obama campaign has got to like the way this could play out among black households the vote of whom they want to lock as much as possible.

Ultimately both campaigns think they scored points tonight. Both Obama and Clinton crossed the line that separates passion from anger. A lot of it made for a vigorous debate in which a lot was aired that was only whispered by surrogates up until today, and that is a good thing; but both candidates also had plenty of negative moments that probably put off many viewers.

The Clintonites are hoping that this will make viewers sour on Obama's promise for a new kind of politics and they think they finally manged to make him look like a calculating politician focused on scoring points. And Obama's backers are convinced their candidate looked more presidential than ever, sustained an incredible amount of heat that made him look like a front-runner. And because Edwards's attempts to stay above the fray, most viewers probably feel Edwards was the best candidate on stage tonight. But Edwards has been in this position many times before and it has not won him many votes.



  • Great wrap. I think each candidate should be satisfied with varying parts of their performance. Clinton put the focus on Obama. Obama showed some fight for a change in these debates. And Edwards was sharp policy wise and appeared above the Clinton-Obama fight.

    By Anonymous Andy, At 22 January, 2008 01:30  

  • I normally don't respond to posts I see on the net but this one was so good that I must commend you for your insight. In particular, your insight about the "tag teaming" not playing well in black households was apropos. I am black, and I have to say, when I saw the youtube footage I was pretty angry. It wasn't until I read your post that it crystallized for me why. Perhaps this will play out for blacks and Obama as did Clinton's predicament in New Hampshire.

    Ultimately, Clinton's attacks and tone reminded me exactly why so many don't like her. I had a sense of distrust, like she was going after Obama, not on the issues, but for political gain. I am starting to feel like I couldn't vote for her in a Clinton-McCain face off (I'd just not vote).

    Interesting moment and an unexpected reaction on my part.

    By Anonymous Ed, At 22 January, 2008 03:27  

  • I must say that it intrigues me to see two individuals who both have a vast amount of political experince stoop so low as to resort to personal attacks on each other. i took this and looked at the entire debate and their political platforms and realized that they are similar in so much of their platforms that they cant debate issues because they both feel they same politically, so they must attack personal histories to give the audience a sense of validation as a candidate. As far as Edwards go he should understand that he is out of his league in comparison its not that he wouldn't be a competant president but just not as apeasing as Obama or Clinton. I myself think that both Clinton and Obama don't take the candidacy as who can win first a black or woman but are impeded into that standpoint and are forced to ask the questions like "What does the African American look to gain from your election into office" or "Will women be considered if you get into office" it makes the debates a heated personal conflict of elementary stature.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 22 January, 2008 12:38  

  • I for one was glad to see someone to start question Obama on his record. Presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, made the case earlier this year on Meet the Press that Americans elect presidents on their personalities and don't take the time to research their backgrounds or political records. So although I am a Yellow Dog democrat, I decided that I would do more to know the candidates before I made a decision. I have alot of questions about Obama... when you are elected by a state you need to vote and represent those people...present is not sufficient. When in the White House representing me ... I want him to be more than just "present". I also have some questions concerning some of his associations.... Antoin Rezko and Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who has recently honored Louis Farrakhan. As my Grandmother use to say... peel an onion, you got alot of layers. I for one would like to know what is in those layers.

    By Anonymous da^witch, At 22 January, 2008 13:37  

  • I'm glad to see voting histories pulled into the debate finally. That's been the deciding factor for me between Clinton and Obama. They both have close political platforms, but I want someone who is an active candidate. In the most recent session of Congress, Obama had nearly a 40% "not voting" record (which he also posts his record on his website) while Clinton had a 20% "not voting" record.

    I used to be an Obama supporter from Illinois, but he never did anything for us other than use us to springboard to a national spotlight. And not vote, or vote "present".

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 22 January, 2008 14:15  

  • Hillary's active and strong negative approach to Barack was a big turn-off at the beginning of this evening's Debate. This is typical of the "Clinton Machine" approach. Read Sally Bedell Smith's "For the Love of Politics" and you will decide that another four or eight years of a Clinton White House will not be in the best interests of our country. The behind-the-scenes manipulations might be politics as usual - but we need to get away from that and take a more unified approach to move our country forward.

    Also - remember that Bill will be the unofficial Vice-President…which will lead to more negatives and Bedell Smith's book reinforces the number of faulty efforts of Bill Clinton's administration.

    Barack Obama is a reasonable and good person who can bring honesty and strength to our country.

    By Anonymous Lois, At 22 January, 2008 18:51  

  • We need a real change, not a backward look to the nineties. Bill would not only be VP, but Sec Of State as well. They just want another chance at the White House because Bill thinks he owes it to Hillary for finishing on such a bad note. Any bets that he won't embarass her if she wins (which I doubt). And then what- Jeb Bush in 2012 or 2016? Please, enought of this nonsense.

    By Anonymous stone621, At 24 January, 2008 20:54  

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