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Friday, February 01, 2008

Last Night's Debate, and Obama's Crash Test Dummies Problem



Good debate last night, without the bickering and personal attacks that haunted the last one. For the most part I agree with Sully's assessment:

"It was, I think, his best debate in the campaign so far. The one-on-one format elevated him instantly and he commanded the stage and the occasion. Hillary Clinton did not do poorly. All her strengths were on show: the policy mastery, the gaffe-free talking points, the Clinton record in the 1990s. But that made his mastery all the more impressive. The good natured sparring helped him. He neutralized her on healthcare and simply cleaned up on the war in Iraq. But most crucial: he seemed like a president. He was already battling McCain. She was still pivoting off Bush. In his body language, he carefully upstaged her, without looking as if he were trying. By the end of the debate, he was pulling her chair back for her."

While I agree that Obama won, I don't share Sully's attitude that it was rout. It wasn't a stunning performance on Obama's part, and Hillary didn't just 'not do poorly' she was very, very good. In fact, her debating style was better than Obama and probably has been thus far. So why did he win? In one word, strategy. (I swear I won't make the Bush joke) If we slice the debate up into three parts, health care, immigration, and Iraq, I'd say it was a split on the first, Hil crushed Obama on the second, and Obama crushed Hil at the end, (with an assist from Blitzer). Health care was a split because, as mentioned numerous times, they don't really differ on policy and it showed. Hillary scored some emotional points on her dedication to provide, eventually, universal health coverage, and her 90s record of fighting for it giving gave her a slight edge. She crushed Obama on illegal immigration because it's not one of his strongest issues, and she was quicker with soundbites. Again, they primarily said the same thing--pushing a 'humane' policy, but Hilary just sounded better. But it was Obama's strategy of 'being right the first time' that gave him the W. Clinton's Iraq vote is the albatross hanging from her neck, and Obama slapped her in the face with it while sucessfully selling the idea that his opposition to Iraq is a quality that compares if not eclipses Hillary's experience. It was also nice (if you're an Obama fan) for Blitzer to remind us of that fact and then implictly call Hil 'naive' to boot. If that slogan does as well from him with the voters as it did with the crowd last night, Obama will take Super Tuesday.

Yet, and I may be turning mole hills into mountains, it seems to me that the gaping hole in Obama's debating style continues to be his stammering. I'm sure you noticed it, but when he answers questions he has this tendancy to mutter vowels when he's searching for a response. It reminds me of that 'MMMM' song by the Crash Test Dummies from back in the day. It's understandable, since most people have some filler noise or phrase they use as a place holder while they organize their thoughts such as, 'like' or 'you know what I'm saying', but the effect of using these place keepers is that it makes the speaker look unprepared and unpolished. When you compare that to the ease that Hillary speaks it makes her look organized and intelligent.

Obama does manage to counteract some of that with his posture. Hillary does have a tendancy to slouch in her seat, while Obama strikes some serious JFK poses when he's not speaking (you notice the slight recline, the fingers against his lips, the arms crossed with his head tilted down? Remind you of anyone?) But his stammering takes away from his greatest strength, which is his eloquence. Once his sentances run smooth I'm not sure if there's anyone in politics who can stand against him.

Note: Something's wrong with Blogger's spell check on my computer, so if you're finding errors in my writing then you're looking too damm closely! Um, I mean mah bad.

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