Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama got their digs in, but both candidates took pains on Thursday night not to appear hostile or mean-spirited in what was their only one-on-one encounter before Super Tuesday.
Instead, the two surviving Democratic contenders spent close to two hours—the debate at the Kodak Theatre wrapped up a few minutes earlier than planned and included three commercial breaks—aiming most of their attacks at John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, and engaging in lengthy, painstaking and rather dispassionate discussions of policy.
From a civics standpoint, the debate was something approaching a triumph. But in terms of political theater, it didn’t even begin to approach the tension and pique that defined last week’s debate in South Carolina.
Both candidates had good reason to play it this way.
For Clinton, the prevailing media narrative of the last few days is that she and her husband went overboard in attacking Obama in South Carolina; that both Bill and Hillary showcased their worst characteristics—whether it was Hillary’s withering, prosecutorial assault on Obama in the pre-South Carolina debate or Bill’s too-cute-by-half efforts to insinuate race into the campaign—and that it prompted a backlash at the polls, delivering to Obama a victory that approached 30 points.
Whether this interpretation is fair or accurate doesn’t really matter. Had Hillary won—or come unexpectedly close—in South Carolina, the media would now be fixating on how devastatingly effective her debate antics had been and how ruthlessly brilliant Bill’s coy racial pigeonholing was.
But because she lost so badly, the media drew the opposite conclusion. And that necessitated a change in style for Hillary and Bill. Had Hillary launched the same types of attacks in last night’s debate that she did in South Carolina, the post-debate coverage would be dominated with stories about Hillary’s “risky” decision to continue attacking Obama even after that tactic had been repudiated. So instead, she struck a more conciliatory—and far less demagogic—tone.
A revealing moment came early on, when she was asked to itemize her policy differences with Obama. She obliged, but notably absent were the inflammatory and misleading extrapolations of Obama’s views that she has happily employed in previous debates.
On the subject of health care, she correctly pointed out that she and Obama differ on the need for the government to mandate that every individual receive coverage. She then made the case for a mandate, arguing that it represents a necessary statement of principle—universal coverage—that needs to be expressed at the start of any negotiation over health care legislation. What she didn’t do—this time—was to conjure images of poor and helpless citizens and demand to know why Obama would deny them health care.
Hillary leveled her share of criticism at Obama last night, but she did it sparingly and in a manner that was respectful—both of her opponent and of the audience’s intelligence.
A similarly conciliatory spirit defined Obama’s performance. He led off the night with an opening statement in which he referred to Hillary as “my friend,” and took pains throughout the debate to point out the common ground that he and Hillary share against the Republicans.
This style suited his needs, too, because he is a weak technical debater when it comes to a hostile back-and-forth format, unable to recognize the rhetorical traps that Hillary occasionally wanders into and either incapable or uninterested in conjuring pithy jabs on the spot.
Plus, the debate came after a few days of surprisingly intense media coverage of Obama’s supposed “snub” of Hillary at Monday night’s State of the Union address, a development that gave the press license to recycle Obama’s “You’re likable enough, Hillary” comment from the final pre-New Hampshire debate. If he went after Hillary too aggressively at the debate, Obama putting Clinton once again in the same victim’s role she assumed in the final days in New Hampshire, a posture that seemed to rally women to her side and keyed her upset victory.