Next February 5, when approximately 83 states are scheduled to hold primaries and caucuses that cumulatively figure to determine the party’s presidential nominee, chances are no one will remember anything from the lead-off Democratic debate.
There were no sharp attacks, no memorable exchanges, no gotcha moments. No one was asked about the hypothetical rape and murder of Kitty Dukakis; no one accidentally declared Poland liberated; and no one foolishly compared him or herself to Jack Kennedy.
The closest any candidate came to eloquence was when Mike Gravel randomly offered up an excerpt of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 put-down of Walter Mondale, saying that he wouldn’t hold his opponents’ youth and inexperience against them.
No one really won this debate. Which makes it a default victory for Hillary Clinton, the only Democrat who stands to win simply by not losing.
Hillary’s performance itself was serviceable, the equivalent of a quarterback completing 13 of 25 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown. She likely benefited from lowered expectations, after months — if not years — of critical attacks on her supposedly tight, frigid and over-scripted public personality.
Yes, her explanation of her notorious 2002 Iraq vote and the war in general was utterly formulaic, and more than once her rhetoric lapsed into bloodless drudgery. Her explanation for her vote to authorize the use of force, as before, was that it was “a sincere vote based on the information available to me.”
But she also showed some life, particularly when the conversation turned to health care. At one point, she faulted herself for the “Hillary Care” debacle of her husband’s first two years, while pronouncing herself determined to learn from her mistakes and address the issue in her own administration. And when she was asked about the Virginia Tech shooting, there was unmistakable, if somewhat subtle, emotion in her voice as she condemned a background check system that failed to keep a gun out of the hands of a student who had been involuntarily committed.
She was also boosted by the lack of a breakthrough moment for either of her chief rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards.
The start of debate season has offered hope in particular to Mr. Edwards, whose clear, uncompromising pronouncements on a host of issues crucial to the party’s base — Iraq chief among them — figured to contrast favorably with Hillary’s cautious and rehearsed language.
But Mr. Edwards was himself stymied. The cluttered stage — candidates went unheard from for spells close to ten minutes at times — prevented him from showcasing the I’m-bolder-than-Hillary theme.
And he was also unexpectedly undercut by NBC’s Brian Williams, who confronted him with two inconvenient questions: one about his judgment in using campaign funds to pay for his infamous $400 haircut, and the other about his recently revealed role with a $30 billion hedge fund. The damage was done before Mr. Edwards, the supposed champion of the other America, could respond.
Mr. Obama certainly didn’t hurt himself, but his oratory — along with his glowing personality and inspiring personal story — is his calling card. Remember that it was a speech at the Democratic National Convention three years ago that launched the national phase of his political career. Performing in a debate is a vastly different art from delivering a speech to a convention hall, but on no topic did Mr. Obama seem to lift the audience — or even his supporters — the way his famous speech did.
Granted, this is an impossible standard for Mr. Obama to live up to every time he stands in front of a microphone, but tonight it helps explain why his performance was largely unremarkable. In fairness, though, he didn’t harm his claim — crucial to the success of his campaign — that he’s sufficiently well-versed in foreign affairs, despite being 28 months removed from the Illinois state Legislature.
This is not to say Messrs. Edwards and Obama were losers tonight. There will be dozens of debates over the next year, and plenty of opportunities to accomplish what they didn’t tonight. There was absolutely no urgency for them, so they can certainly be happy to walk away gaffe-free.
Hillary also benefited from rules that forbade direct questioning between candidates, keeping any of the publicity-starved lower-tier candidates from picking a fight with her in order to make news.
(This was how Pete duPont, a hopeless long-shot, helped sink Bob Dole in the 1988 New Hampshire primary, offering the front-runner a “no new taxes pledge” in a debate three days before the primary on live TV. Mr. Dole refused and lost by nine points.)
Certainly, the cranky Mr. Gravel, or possibly Dennis Kucinich, would have delighted in making Mrs. Clinton squirm on Iraq. But the rules prevented them from causing much mischief.
The other dark horses — Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson — were unable to distinguish themselves, which will be a particular disappointment for Mr. Richardson, who is seen as having the most breakout potential of this bunch. Mr. Biden, on the other hand, may have made a few highlight reels with his humorous display of self-restraint, answering a question about his verbosity with a rare (first ever?) one-word response. He also showed that he may already have consolation prizes on his mind. On the night’s final question, he pointedly offered praise of the front-runner: “Whoever’s wishing for Hillary is making a big mistake on the Republican side.” As the debate concluded, Mrs. Clinton could be seen on television warmly embracing Mr. Biden. Secretary of State Biden, anyone?
The bar was fairly low for Mrs. Clinton tonight. To the extent she receives positive reviews in the aftermath of this debate, it figures to be a reflection of this. Not that her campaign won’t take the compliments. But with so many similar events on tap for the rest of this year, she’ll have to step up her performance considerably — because her opponents surely will too.
Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.