This was not a particularly good debate for Barack Obama. Of course, the same was said after many of the previous debates, and it didn’t stop him from scoring a clear Iowa victory.
Throughout most of tonight’s 90-minute affair, Obama faded into the background while Hillary Clinton confidently asserted herself with a series of specific policy riffs that buttressed her campaign’s themes of preparation and experience.
The question now, 48 hours before the voters of tiny Dixville Notch cast the first votes of the New Hampshire primary, is whether this debate will matter significantly more than the previous ones. If the answer is yes, then Hillary may yet reverse the tide of momentum that has propelled Obama since Thursday night and pull out the New Hampshire win that is all but essential to her nomination prospects.
There were two potential flaws in Obama’s performance tonight.
The first was his shyness when it came to rebutting Hillary’s charges aggressively. Several times the former First Lady came after him, but only on the question of health care — with Hillary pressing her criticism that Obama’s plan does not guarantee universal coverage — did he engage her and effectively fend off her attack.
But mostly, she left him with golden opportunities that he passed up. Like when she accused him of flip-flopping, noting that he opposed the Iraq war as a Senate candidate “but then you came to senate and voted for $300 billion for it.”
Obama could have turned the tables by arguing that he had reluctantly agreed to fund the war to only provide badly needed support for the troops — troops that are only in Iraq because Hillary voted to send them there in the first place. But he let the topic drop altogether.
Obama can thank John Edwards for picking up some of the slack. Edwards, whose longshot nomination strategy hinges on driving Hillary out of the race, proclaimed that both he and Obama are agents of change — and that Hillary is part of “the forces of the status quo.”
“I think that every time this happens — every time I speak out for change and every time Senator Obama speaks out for change — the forces of the status quo are going to attack every single time.”
He added: “I didn’t hear these kind of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead. And now I hear them. And anytime you speak out for change, this happens.”
Edwards’ maneuver temporarily threw Hillary on the defensive and elicited a response that bordered on shrill. But it was an exchange that also highlighted the other flaw in Obama’s performance: The ease with which he seemed to disappear from the proceedings at times.
And it was in the second half of the debate that Obama’s low-key presence began to work against him, as Hillary more and more aggressively inserted herself into the proceedings with thorough, sober and detailed responses.
For instance, as moderator Charles Gibson cited examples of past Presidents who have come to Washington pledging to bring about change, Hillary interjected at the mention of her husband, recapping the Clinton administration’s deficit reduction record and branding it a textbook example of a leader who was effective at producing, and not just talking about, change — the exact type of leader she offers herself as.
The Clinton campaign wants Democrats to view her as a President who can actually deliver on what Obama talks about. It’s a tough sell, since it requires voters to choose policy over personality. But she made a strong case in the second half of the debate, speaking fluently and without hesitation about the nuances of policy.
“Words are not actions,” she said at one point, “and as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action. What we have got to do is translate thought into action and feeling into reality.”
Obama helped her as well in the second half of the debate. While Hillary carried on about the details of policy and Edwards sermonized about the fundamental corruption of the system, Obama seemed less than eager to enter the fray, and when he did, he frequently sounded like a front-runner trying to run out the clock without making a mistake. His responses were peppered with pauses and “uhs,” a less than inspiring contrast to the policy command Hillary displayed.
Again, Obama has performed similarly in past debates. And Hillary has too. But with New Hampshire’s voters watching this one more intently, it seems possible that Hillary’s overall performance made many of them more receptive to the overall themes of her campaign.