This weekend has been really exciting with the NFL playoffs beginning. If you had told me 5 years ago that I’d think watching football was more important than watching a political debate leading up to the primaries, I’d think you were nuts. You probably would’ve been nuts too, considering that I had no interest in football at the time. Despite the increased importance of football in my life, I still love politics (and occasionally think that it can be more important). So I searched the internets for video of the January 5th double-header Republican and Democratic debate in New Hampshire. This debate comes on the heals of Obama’s Iowa victory and precedes the upcoming New Hampshire primary. After the Iowa caucus, Biden and Dodd dropped out. With Gravel and Kucinich getting practically no support, the field has whittled down considerably. Only four candidates were invited to the debate: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson.
My very general impression was that this debate didn’t change any of my opinions. I still lean towards Obama and Edwards, and despise Clinton. I thought Edwards and Obama had strong performances; big surprise. I do recognize that one’s interpretation of key exchanges is tinged by one’s preconceptions of the candidates. I felt as if Clinton was struggling to keep the spotlight on herself. (She wasn’t in the middle as she always was.) Her aura of inevitability has evaporated after her third place finish in Iowa. She seemed less confident and tried to push her message about who’s ready to lead on day one, an argument which I find utterly bizarre.
It’s strange how the media unquestioningly picks up the candidates’ attempts to shape the storyline. One of the moderators asked about the “experience” versus “change” debate. Yet here they are, talking about Clinton’s experience, when she has only served one full term and part of a second as a Senator. Sitting to her right, is Bill Richardson, who has been Secretary of Energy, has been governor of New Mexico, has been a diplomat who dealt with North Korea and Iraq, and has served in Congress. Perhaps Richardson should have explicitly drawn that stark contrast between his cabinet positions during Bill Clinton’s tenure as president and Hillary Clinton’s unappointed position as First Lady. Talking about Hillary Clinton’s “experience” is ridiculous.
Because of his small support, though, the moderator Gibson didn’t that it was too important to give Richardson equal time. Richardson got less than 3% of the vote in the Iowa caucus, compared to Clinton’s third place finish of 28 or 29%. During the debate, he struggled to get speaking time and seemed visibly peeved. Still, with what time he got to speak, he failed to make a convert out of me. I never connected with him, the way I felt a connection with Edwards and Obama. (I can only speak of myself; I will not be like some pundits and ascribe my feelings to the American people in general.)
Today, I felt that there was something special about Obama. Maybe it’s because I’ve been primed to feel that way based on the opinions of others, but I like to think that it’s my honest opinion. He successfully parried several of Clinton’s attacks. When she accused him of being inconsistent on health care, he noted that there was a difference between what he would do if he could start from scratch and his plan since we aren’t starting from scratch. (Ah, such pleasing words to hear for a student of Burke, such as myself.) It was an intelligent answer. Therein is one of the greatest differences between Clinton (or, more accurately, what Clinton represents) and Obama. When Bill Clinton took over, the Republican Revolution happened and he was besieged by an ascending conservative majority. Old-school Democratic politics says that the American people are dupes, who will fall for the Republican’s superior ability in controlling the message. Liberalism contains a taint of haughtiness, or smugness. We saw it in George Clooney’s Oscar speech. We see it in the way they treat the poor out of a sense of nobless oblige. Obama lacks that arrogance. The most striking thing about Obama was that when he used the phrase “the American people,” it actually meant something. They weren’t the unwashed masses; they were people you had to go out and convince in order to build a “working majority,” as he put it.
I love the passion and fight that Edwards has in him. His painting of Clinton as an agent of the status quo was one of the most masterful moves in the debate. He created a contrast between himself and Obama. His view was that we had to fight entrenched interests in order to bring about the change we want. As much as I admire how Edwards has made the fight personal for himself, I must ultimately side with Obama. Obama will work to create that working majority and bring the people back into politics. His method stands in stark contrast to that of the former trial lawyer Edwards, and it is the more appealing vision.
To me, Obama brings something to the table none of the other candidates are even thinking about promising: He wants to restore faith in American government. Unfortunately, Bill Clinton helped to erode that trust, and a Hillary Clinton presidency will carry the same taint.
I can only hope that the people of New Hampshire share Obama’s vision as well.
Tomorrow: The Republican side.