Philadelphia debate: Gotcha questionning leads Obama to stumble

The last time the Democratic field debated in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton was at the height of her dominance, enjoying great coverage, strong numbers and an inevitability aura. That debate, however, was the start of her slow decline as her rivals took shot after shot against the front-runner, leaving her badly wounded on the issue of immigration (read that debate's recap here). Tonight, it was Obama's turn to be under the spotlight: The Illinois Senator was subjected to a series of tough questions the likes of which he had not faced since the beginning of the campaign. Clearly unprepared to answer some of the questions and shocked at the moderators' persistence, Obama offered unusually weak responses.

In short, this was one of Obama's worst debate performances. Whether it will hurt him or whether it will trigger a backlash, however, is another question.

The ABC moderators took the low road tonight, spending the first 50 minutes of the debate rehashing gotcha questions and controversies. Even worse, they did so by throwing most of these ugly questions in Obama's direction; Clinton had relatively few tough personal questions to field. Many Clinton supporters will say that this is only fair after all the debates in which she was at the center of the attention. You might remember the last debate before Ohio, held as Obama seemed on the verge of clinching the Democratic nod; in what was one of the worst moderations of the cycle, Brian Williams and Tim Russert did their best to prove Clinton's allegation that the media was stacked against her.

Yet, the issue today was not as much how many questions were directed at each candidate but which questions the moderators sought to catch Obama on. Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulous brought out a lot of the material that the Clinton campaign would love to bring up in its own effort to show that Obama is not an electable candidate; aware that some of the issues they were bringing up were not necessarily appropriate, Gibson and Stephanopoulous framed many of their questions under the electability cloak: How will you defend yourself against these charges when they are raised in the general?

We should have expected a significant portion of the debate to be devoted to bitter-gate (as it did). But I had forgotten that, since the last debate was held on February 26th, a number of issues that came up since then and that have been long since addressed by the campaigns would come back today -- starting, of course, with Reverend Wright. But after a brief interlude in which Hillary Clinton was asked to address her flawed account of her Bosnia landing, it was back to Obama with two questions that had yet to make their way into a debate.

The first was asked by a female voter in a video clip (as apparently neither moderator wanted to take it upon themselves to ask the question, as if there were not the ones choosing the topics). "Do you believe in the American flag?" she asked Obama, adding that this was not meant as an attack on his patriotism... Obama was asked to justify why he does not wear a flag pin. The second question was asked by Stephanopoulous himself who brought up... William Ayers, the rehabilitated member of the Weather Underground with which Obama has some vague and tenuous relationship (as Clinton was glad to point out, they served on the same board...). This also probably means that there will be a wave of stories on Ayers in coming days, just as Rezko's first incursion in a debate in a January led to his entrance in mainstream media coverage.

Even the questions on Wright were more brutal than Obama could have expected, for what can a question like "do you think reverend Wright likes America as much as you do" possibly mean? This had to be the Clinton campaign's dream line of questioning -- and they had to be hoping that superdelegates were watching. Again and again, Clinton made the case that she was more prepared to fight a general election; my baggage has already been rummaged through, she proclaimed, in what she was hoping would be a clear contrast to the vetting Obama was going through.

The questions might have been unfair and too exclusively directed against the Illinois Senator, but Obama should still have been much better in answering them. For one, he looked uncommonly tired, lacking energy and motivation; he was visibly struggling his way through answers, even when answering questions on Wright, a topic which he presumably knew was coming. Obama defended himself on all accounts by denouncing this sort of gotcha questions as "manufactured issues" that "distract" voters from real problems. And he clearly was frustrated enough to be asked about Ayers and the flag pin that his stump speech denunciation of the "old politics" was not as efficient as usual. Obama also attempted some improvised defenses that could have come out better; whatever the merits of the comparison and from a purely political standpoint, he should probably have avoided comparing Ayers to Senator Coburn.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was all too eager to push him underwater, bringing up further elements and refusing Obama's defenses. She brought up Hamas and Farrakhan, adding, "This is a legitimate area, as everything is when we run for office." One of her most aggressive moments came during her addressing the Wright controversy, as she used one of the conservatives' favorite line of attack against Obama's race/class speech, one that Republicans are sure to use in November: "You get to choose your pastor, you don't get to choose your family." She also accused Obama of offering different "variations" of his defense on Wright. Yet, Clinton was able to not appear as negative as she could have otherwise; the moderators were bringing up all by themselves issues she herself would not have dared to approach first.

Obama was very visibly on the defensive for 45 minutes -- and that is never a good place to be. This is not to say that Obama didn't have some good responses to the moderators and to Clinton. Defending himself on bittergate, for instance, he brought up Hillary's 1992 declaration that she did not want to stay at home baking cookies. But he did not use this to attack her for elitism but rather to defend her from it, explaining that he knew then "that's not who she is, that's not what she meant." Thus, Obama brought up a moment that Clinton would rather forget while giving the impression of taking the high road. His counter to Clinton's charge on Ayers (he reminded her that her husband had pardoned two members of the Weather Underground) was also effective.

Yet, it is hard for any candidate to survive such heavy and sustained fire. At the October Philadelphia debate, Clinton was left standing at the last minutes where she took a decisive hit on the issue of illegal immigration. And Obama had not even come at his best today, making it unavoidable that the debate would reserve some rough patches.

And the debate's second half did not help Obama make up for the first 45 minutes. Clinton is usually at her best when the conversation turns to the economy and at her worst answering process questions; since she dodged the bullet on the latter today, she entered the former in strong shape, while Obama remained distraught.

It is quite another question, however, to determine what impact the debate will have on the upcoming contests, on superdelegates and on the general election. The dominant debate story throughout this cycle's debates (with the notable exception of the first Philadelphia debate) has been that the candidate coming under the heaviest fire benefits from voters revolting against what they perceive as a fundamental unfairness. This happened quite famously in the New Hampshire debate when John Edwards and Obama tag-teamed Clinton, leading to women rallying around the New York Senator. It happened again two weeks later in South Carolina, where Edwards and Clinton became temporary allies against Obama in what was perhaps the nastiest debate of the cycle; a few days later, the black vote had rallied around Obama who carried the primary by a huge margin. Finally, it happened at the Ohio debate, in which Clinton took much more hits than Obama but the moderators' stubborn dedication to "get" her might have helped her at a time she was trying to prove that the media was biased against her.

So which past debate will tonight's showdown resemble the most? Will it trigger a backlash in favor of the candidate who was on the defensive, just as it did in NH, SC and OH? Or was it a replay of the previous Philadelphia debate, with reversed roles but the same narrative -- a front-runner is harassed and stumbles durably? A good case could be made for both scenarios: The questions were more one-sided than usual, yes, but Obama also looked much weaker than usual.

Of course, which of these two parallels is the most accurate will determine the answer to an even more important question: Will this be the last debate of this primary season?

Update: Well, it did not take long for entire articles to be written about Ayers, such as this one in the New York Times. It indeed looks like this will be a replay of Rezko in late January.



  • Obama looked worn out and angry most of the times. That was odd. He is all about bitterness and frustration these days rather than hope. He tanked tonight, or at least that's what I think.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 16 April, 2008 22:42  

  • It was the worst Debate EVER .. there was no substance questions for half the debate only scandals, and it was only scandals that involved Obama, anything that was Clinton related was passed over very quickly. The debate should of been ran by the National Enquirer, Im sure it would of been more fair.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 16 April, 2008 22:46  

  • As an Obama supporter what I felt most about the first 45 minutes of the so called debate was anger. I think that the rehashing of every manufactured gaffe of the last six months and adding some new ones was something that I would expect from Fox but not ABC who will probably be the biggest losers tonight. I think the polls will show this will actually help Obama in the voting and also with doners. He did look somewhat besieged but at least he didn't complain about being piled on like Hillary. There were some interesting discussions in the debates' second half but by then the tone had been set. I understand that this is what the Repubs will be looking to do in the fall and I think this will be a good test for Obama when he meets McCain; although those debates will be much more issue oriented. I hope.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 16 April, 2008 23:03  

  • Barack Obama needs one more debate in North Carolina or Indiana.

    If he had come in prepared to answer these questions, he would have taken a big step towards the presidency. If he can't handle a Democratic debate, how will he debate McCain.

    Another obervation is spot on: why does Obama seem tired in these debates?

    I can visualize this debate question in the fall:

    "Senator Obama, how would you respond if your wife was kidnapped by terrorists?"

    It may be be really over-the-top,
    but he'd better have answer.

    Now it appears the only way to beat McCain is for a Hillary miracle, and reversing some of her negatives.

    Otherwise it will be the Democrats
    choosing the wrong candidate.

    By Anonymous mikeel, At 16 April, 2008 23:33  

  • I wasn't able to watch the debate because I had an evening class, but from what I've heard from both the news and the blogs is that it was one worst debates ever. AP's highlight was that Clinton said that Obama IS electable, which I guess is her way of saying that she isn't going to take the democratic party down if she is not the nominee.

    Mikeel, I don't think that all of the primary debates can exactly be compared to the general election debates. First of all, the GE debates are more issue orientated and they have much bigger audiences than the primary debates. Neither Obama nor McCain are particulary strong debators (Rommney was the best debator on the GOP side, Clinton on the dem side) but for the high stakes GE debates both candidates will try their best to look good. I think that Obama is very tired of having all of these debates in a primary season that has lasted longer than most has thought, while Clinton relishes them because it is one more way reason to show off her strength as a debator and try to weaken Obama. If the debate was harping on Obama as much as it had been harping on Hillary in the ones beforehand, then I think that Obama got a good lessen.

    In terms of convincing superdelegates or the PA primary, I don't think that it changes much. If the debate was more issue orienated and Obama stumbled then maybe it would give some pause, however I think many Superdelegats will just see this debate as the media trying to make up for being to nice to Obama in the past and will not change their minds.

    By Anonymous jaxx raxor, At 17 April, 2008 00:34  

  • "but for the high stakes GE debates both candidates will try their best to look good"

    You made it sound like the primary debates are low-stakes, and therefore don't need to try their best ?

    If you can't win the primary to begin with, why think about the general?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 00:46  

  • The primary debates are not exactly low-stakes, you are right about that. However in my opinon the earlier debates were more important because while Clinton had the lead in public opinion polls early in the season, there was a need by other candidates to test this. These later debates don't mean as much because so much of the country has already voted, many democrats are anxious to end the primary to prepare for the general, and Hillary Clinton is very unlikely to overturn a pledged delegate lead because of the backlash it would create.

    So in a sense, I think that the earlier debates were important but now Obama is frontunner and very unlikely to lose this status.... a weak debate performance doesn't mean as much now then it would have back in December or January for example.

    In terms of your question of needing to win the primary before the general, Obama is well on his way to winning the nomination because of his pledged delegate lead and the backlash amoong Clinton supporters will be much less than those by Obama supporters if Clinton gets the nomination, sans a massive impolosion of Obama's candiancy. A debate that according to reports I've seen was mostly about 'gotcha' questions and less about issues is a less important debate in my book. In the GE the debators can't afford to do such a thing.

    Sorry for my long comment :P

    By Anonymous jaxx raxor, At 17 April, 2008 01:02  

  • the GE debates won't be about important issues if ABC has anything to do with them.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 06:14  

  • jaxx raxor: I agree with you that the GE debates will be much more isssue oriented. Comparing them to primary debates is apples and oranges; different rules of engagement. It wasn't that Obama's performance was that terrible, it was that the questions in the first half were all of the "When did you stop beating your wife?" type with no good answer. The flag pin question is a good example of this type of query.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 06:26  

  • No one who saw that debate can honestly say that Barack is up to the job of president. Putting him on a pedestal and shouting about inevitability drove the questioners into him like a carving knife into a thanksgiving turkey. He got sliced up and served. When the same happened repeatedly to Hillary, you foolish Obamans thought he was untouchable and got cocky. Welcome to reality. He was supposed to be prepared for adversity. I spent plenty of time here playing the devil's advocate to help you get ready. I guess none of you have a voice in his campaign. If your english skills were as bad as you displayed here, I guess I can't blame them for deleting your input. He's in the fire now until Hillary overtakes him in pledged delegates. Since that isn't going to be quick or even possible, perhaps you should expect the rest of this primary to be brutal and unrelenting.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 06:55  

  • Taniel, your starting to lean a little to far to Obama. The Rezko issue was put on hold and muzzled by an ongoing investigation into influence peddling by Rezko. The links to Obama are not being exposed because of it. Barack will be either cleared or indicted later. That's why the letters he wrote on behalf of Rezmar were dropped by the press. It would be inappropriate and possibly damaging to the criminal investigation to allow the press to reveal them. Patience. In Barack's case-anguish.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 07:18  

  • Anon 6:55 - Clinton cannot overtake Obama in pledged delegates unless she wins 65:35 in every state and that isn`t going to happen in PA, NC or OR. So lets just get that fact out there.

    It was not a great performance by either candidate but ABC seem to be getting hit for playing gotcha politics and not really dealing with proper issues like jobs, healthcare, foreign policy etc. You know the stuff normal Americans (not political junkies) wanted answered.

    I think the Ayers "issue" was effectively put to bed by bringing up the pardons Clinton gave to two members. Also the "baking cookies" reference was well played. I expect Obama will agree to a NC debate afetr this unless he does better than expected in PA (ie loses by less than 10%) then there will be no need. And before Clinton supporters complain, she would do the same if she was in the lead.

    By Anonymous Tom, At 17 April, 2008 08:26  

  • Tom if Hilliary was in the lead by 150 pledged delegates kinda like how Obama is right now (thier leads would have been switched if the Democratic Primary used a Winner Take all System) the primary would have already been over. Clinton (at least before this race, if not still currently) has alot of support among the party elites and if that was backed up by a lead and the possibility of the race dragging on there would have been insurmontable pressure for Obama to leave the race, althrough in a Winner Take all System the losing candidate had a much better chance of overtaking the leader by winning nearly the rest of the states, if even by a small margin in each. Netherless, Clintion is much more persistant and powerful ad the current underdog than how Obama would have been if he was behind in pledged delegates at this point.

    By Anonymous jaxx raxor, At 17 April, 2008 09:01  

  • Jaxx I completely agree about the pressure Obama would be under if the positions were reversed. That is the unfairness of Hillary continuing if PA, NC and IN are disappointing (i.e winning PA by single digits, losing NC by more than 10 and winning IN by less than 5). We will see what happens. As Obama reaches closer to 2025 the media will switch back to that story - PA and NC are the two largest states left and Obama is likley to get 150 plus delegates out of the two states. Add in some superdelegatesa and he is then in striking position.

    By Anonymous Tom, At 17 April, 2008 09:49  

  • The Obama reply doesn't wash with the pardons because they served time and didn't praise 9/11. Ayers escaped real sentencing and went on to say damaging things that should have made Barack steer clear of his involvement with him. In this world you are judged by whom you keep company with and Barack still refuses to get that. He's a goner.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 15:27  

  • Ayers? Are we kidding?

    Here's how one answers the Ayers non-issue. "I've served on Boards with lots of people. I've been to houses of lots of people. Some are even Republicans. Does that mean I agree with everything they say? Of course not. Once again, people without any better ideas are purposely trying to distract you from the real issues. Now let's get back to what matters to the American people: Iraq, health care, the economy. Let's compare what I would sign to what McCain would sign. Because that's the job you're electing us to do."

    It's not that hard.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 17 April, 2008 16:44  

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