There have been 20 debates between the Democratic candidates, three featuring only Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and if this final confrontation had any game-changing potential, the opportunity has come and passed. There were a few tense moments, to be sure, but no gaffes, no inappropriate sighs to puzzle over, just two people who claim to like each other and largely agree on everything.
It’s because of that agreement that the viewing public was subjected to yet another endless back-and-forth on one of the few stated policy differences between the candidates—whether or not to mandate health care insurance.
Another major difference between them, of course, is the war in Iraq, and Clinton’s vote to authorize it. On that point, she seemed to come closer than ever before to calling that a mistake: “Well, obviously, I’ve said many times that, although my vote on the 2002 authorization regarding Iraq was a sincere vote, I would not have voted that way again.” That was in response to a question about whether there were “any words or votes that you’d like to take back.”
It has widely been speculated that in order to upset Obama’s momentum, Clinton would attempt to force him into an error during a debate, and she did aggressively press him on a number of points. But at each moment of peril—particularly a jab about Louis Farrakhan—Obama seemed unflappable.
As did Clinton, for the most part, though in an odd moment she objected to being questioned first. The Clinton campaign has been arguing for some time now that the media have treated Hillary unfairly, and one storyline emerging from the debate is that she might have been frustrated that the moderators weren’t more focused on grilling Obama, who is now the front-runner. Indeed, Tim Russert went after Clinton on NAFTA with a particular zeal.
“Saturday Night Live” recently spoofed journalists’ alleged fondness for Obama, a point that Clinton referenced during the debate. Still, if biases are being asserted, then it is only fair to point out that any other candidate would probably have gotten the Huckabee treatment from the media after a handful of lost primaries and caucuses, let alone 11 in a row. Instead, we were told to never underestimate a Clinton.
But if Hillary hasn’t gotten enough love from the press, she got plenty from Barack near the end of the debate. Asked to highlight a weakness of his opponent, Obama refused: “I have to say, Brian, I think she is—she would be worthy as a nominee. Now, I think I’d be better. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be running. But there’s no doubt that Sen. Clinton is qualified and capable and would be a much better president than John McCain, who I respect and I honor his service to this country, but essentially has tethered himself to the failed policies of George Bush over the last seven years.”
Mark Halperin, who has been grading the debate performances for Time, gave Obama a B+ and Clinton a B-. That sounds about right to us. One thing is for sure: Whoever wins this nomination is going to have a tremendous amount of debating experience under his or her belt going up against Republican McCain.
You can read the full transcript of the debate here.