Friday, February 22, 2008

Debate in Austin

Random thoughts--

I wonder what a debate without a crowd would sound like, how much more substantive and time-efficient it would be? I found the cheering interruptions distracting.

I only watched the first 90 minutes of it, so I missed what was apparently Hillary's best moment in the closing. Good for her, if Marc Ambinder's take is a reasonable proximity to her perspective and intentions.

The first half of the 90 minutes I thought Obama appeared somewhat tired, not aggressive, and his voice hoarse. I thought Hillary had a stronger first half here, but I am one who finds Obama's debate "pauses" as some observers refer to them, to be a strength. He comes off genuine, non-programmed, thoughtful. And while I hate to attach any meaning to facial expressions and other asthetic concerns, I much prefer Obama's "straight face" to Hillary's weird smirk or smile or whatever it is she presents. Obama has a great poker face, and comes across tough and knowledgeable without allowing himself to get unnecessarily provoked. I think he will handle McCain OK.

The second half got more testy, but Obama appeared to come back after the first break as if he had been injected with assertiveness juice, as he was much more engaged. Hillary's "xerox" line made her look small, as did the whole exchange on the plagiarism charge. And her reference to the Texas representative who got stumped by Chris Matthews as to Obama's accomplishments also seemed, as Obama referred to it as, another contribution to "silly season". It was beneath her.

The first question out of the box delt with Cuba, and here, while I thought there was much more Obama could have said, his response was far and away superior to that of Clinton's, which sounded like Leave No Exile Behind boilerplate. Obama could have also said something along the lines of "China and Saudia Arabia aren't democracies and we talk to them, irregardless of their human rights records; Cuba's really no different. Unless there is some very clear, very serious strategic concerns separating Cuba from other non-democratic countries (and I don't see how there would be), our approach to its leadership should be roughly consistent with how we deal with other countries who don't share all our values."

But Obama's response was, nonetheless, a meaningful "change" from what Clinton offers on this count, as is his recognition of the need to reorient America's approach to the world and the need to begin treating other countries more respectfully rather than as disobedient children or poor relations.

On the economy, I thought Hillary responded well here, particularly to what she would do differently from Obama "from day one". Her emphasis on the country's mortgage crisis was also skillfully played, as well as prescient given the headline story in today's NYT. She also did well to emphasize the connection between her own, fairly aggressive policy prescription for the mortgage crisis to what many in the financial world, and to a lesser extent within the administration itself, appear to be coming around to. Paul Krugman also raises an important point by emphasizing the economic straights that may confront the next president.

Obama comes off less impressive here. The line about ending tax breaks for companies that ship jobs over seas sounds little better than the standard line about ending waste and abuse in government. I'm left wondering--how many jobs are at stake here? How meaningful would such a change in tax policy be?

I would have appreciated some more challenging follow up by the debate panel, particularly when Hillary stated that $5 billion spent on "green (environmental-like) jobs" would put "hundreds of thousands to work". I don't know what she meant here or how the money would translate into so many jobs, but the debate panel didn't respond to it.

I did appreciate that the debate panel didn't let Obama or Hillary off with generic comments about the need for "comprehensive" immigration reform. They made the two talk about what changes if any should be made in any border fence program or border security. I don't happen to care all that much about immigration "reform", but I know many do, and even with McCain as the GOP nominee, the issue will surface in some way and the Dem nominee will have to address it in ways that go beyond the need to find a path to citizenship for the 12 million, give or take, illegal immigrants in the country. And along that line, why does Obama think hefty fines for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship are a good idea? It would seem to put an added incentive for undocumented workers to stay underground, and would impose considerable hardships on those workers who did apply for citizenship, as they are likely to be among the more economically distressed.

The health care skirmish I thought came out to about a draw. Hillary responded competently to Obama's argument about the mandate.

Overall, I am more impressed by Obama's presentation and debating approach then some--even among his supporters--are. And where Hillary comes across as competent and "ready", I can see why she has a reputation for appearing "chilly" in her on stage persona. I don't know if she is over-compensating for some perceived defect, or if this is her natural way of being.

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