Unexciting Democratic Primary Debate Shows Promising and Unpromising Candidates

NOTE: This was put up under the wrong byline but we’ll leave it as it is. JOE GANDELMAN

If you tuned in to tonight’s Democratic candidates debate and expected fireworks, you were likely disappointed. If you tuned in expecting a major gaffe, you were disappointed. If you tuned in expecting to see The Major Star emerge from the pack, you were disappointed.

But in a debate hampered by format as well as the natural caution of salesmen warily rolling out their products in front of potential buyers for the first time, the watchword was “content” and a unity of sorts around the concept that the next President must make a drastic departure from the policies, political style, unilateral international brinksmanship of the Bush administration. Time Magazine perhaps captured the mood best:

No hits, no runs, no errors. The much-anticipated first “debate” of the 2008 Democratic candidates Thursday night at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., was a polite event — and not a particularly enlightening one. Part of the problem was the format, in which candidates were limited to 60-second answers and not allowed to engage each other. Part of it was the sheer number of people on stage: eight candidates in all. But after 90 minutes, it was hard to pick out a single memorable answer. The only thing made clearer is why the candidates, who are facing scores of requests to repeat the exercise, are trying to put a limit to the number of debates in which they will participate.

The top three contenders — Clinton, Obama, and Edwards — did little to hurt or help themselves. That made it a wash for them. None of the so-called “second tier” — Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson — managed what they were hoping for, which was a badly needed breakout moment. Biden, however, got the biggest laugh of the night when moderator Brian Williams brought up his well deserved reputation for talking too much and committing gaffes. “Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?” Williams asked. Biden’s answer: “No.” Which was followed by a long, pregnant silence.

The debates now matter in 21st century American because over the years political debates have become a baptism-under-fire for the person who emerges to head a given party’s ticket. Even when conducted under idea-hampering format constraints the debates allow voters to see the evolution of candidates over the course of a primary season.

Here are some impressions from this independent voter. These impressions are NOT necessarily based on a given candidate’s ideas, but a bunch of factors on their how viable they would be heading a ticket that needs to attract more than voters from the Democratic Party base:

SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON: She has been a work in progress since being elected to Senator. And last night she had the content in her comments and her delivery was vastly improved — often (but not always) succeeding in the conversational style that won her much praise in her widely-covered candidacy announcement over the Internet. Towards the end there was a brittleness to her comments and her voice rose. If she can continue to connect with the camera (and viewers) and offer substantive comments she could do what has been difficult for her so far — pick up a batch of new supporters. Republicans underestimate her at their considerable peril.

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA:
He came across as one of the most thoughtful candidates, heavy on ideas and not into playing (or tolerating) political games during the debate. His famous charisma appeared diminished in this debate. The seriousness with which he spoke and the answers he gave seemed a bit reminiscent of John F. Kennedy in some of his debates where JFK was trying to overcome perceptions about his youth. Hillary Clinton underestimates him at her considerable peril.

FORMER SENATOR JOHN EDWARDS: Edwards was a major disappointment to many when he ran as Vice President in 2004. The hype about his charisma and depth didn’t seem to translate well on the tube, particularly when he was almost deferential to Dick Cheney in the debates. But Edwards seems to have gotten his political act together. The John Edwards last night was much closer to the John Edwards that was hyped in 2004. He seems to have staked out his own ground. Keep watching him.

SENATOR JOE BIDEN:
Biden has run into trouble due to pundits and Democrats who feel he has double foot-in-mouth disease: a penchant to say something dumb and that he often remind people of the famous Chinese philosopher — Aahn Too Long. But last night, Biden seemed to hit a perfect note — like Edwards, staking out his own ground. Interestingly, Biden was perhaps one who came across best on T.V. because his personality seemed bigger than life due to the emphatic and blunt way he expresses his ideas. However, Biden appears to be both damaged goods and too familiar a face in Presidential debates for a party looking for someone new. He may have a future as a Vice Presidential candidate or in a high post in a Democratic administration.

NEW MEXICO GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Perhaps the most flawed performance of any of the “big name” presidential wannabes. Richardson seemingly displaced Biden as the windiest candidate, seldom finishing a response before a reminder from the moderator that he was out of time. His answers often seemed to contain a good answer and then a quick effort to regurgitate as many points crammed before the debate into whatever time he could. In each primary season there is someone who simply does not come over well on television, and this doesn’t have to do with looks. Richardson’s aides need to work on a) a punchier, more confident TV delivery and b) getting him to finish his question before he is reminded he is out of time. If Obama came across as JFK, Richardson last night sometimes came across as the Joe Biden that Joe Biden was trying to put behind him last night…

SENATOR CHRIS DODD:
Not much to criticize or praise. Seems more like to be a Vice Presidential candidate. Dodd could be one of the ones to drop out early. In terms of “looking Presidential,” Dodd did well. But the overall package was like political tofu. Unlikely to appeal to primary voters.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH:
Kucinich has his fans on the Left but he has little potential for a general election. The reason: President George W. Bush came to office saying he was “a uniter not a divider” and has presided over one of the most (if not THE most) polarizing administrations in American history. Kucinich suggested he is a healer but stated that if any of his competitors apologized for voting for the war in Iraq, that was NOT enough. Even a cursory look at polls over the past few years show that MANY AMERICANS supported the war and have now changed their minds. Kucinich also argues war can’t be policy and questioned whether there really is a war on terror. These concepts would have little chance of attracting even center-left independent voters that Democrats need to win in 2008. He has a future as a member of Congress. And, if he is nominated, a Republican will have a future in the Oval Office.

FORMER SENATOR MIKE GRAVEL:
He provided colorful sound bites that will be played and replayed by progressive talk show hosts and quoted on progressive blogs. But he is not a serious candidate who could give Republicans a run for their money. He is to this race what the Rev. Al Sharpton was in the past — a great quote machine for journalists, broadcasters, talk show hosts and bloggers. Unfortunately, the point of primaries is to pick someone to run for President and win a general election. His only appeal will be to the party’s staunch anti-war left.

BOTTOM LINE: The Democrats have some strong candidates at the starting gate who have potential if they work on (a) the content of their messages and (b) the reality that messages must be communicated succinctly and in a way that connects with viewers.

These candidates will likely all be skewered and belittled by some Republican talk show and cable hosts. But the Demmies clearly have some candidates who could communicate, present alternative ideas, run a good campaign and win an election. The biggest loser: those who expected one of the candidates to self-destruct last night. None did.

–Joe Gandelman

THAT’S JUST OUR VIEW. HERE ARE SOME MORE OPINIONS ON THE DEBATES (these are excerpts so go to the original links):

Glenn Reynolds has a bunch of links and writes: “I’d say that Mike Gravel improved his situation the most: “Gravel… that’s news to me. I didn’t even know he was still alive!”‘

Good Will Hunting has a post similar to ours breaking down how each candidate did…but with some different reactions. Overall: “Overall, the Democrats stayed away from the circular firing squad tonight. If they do that, 2009 will have a Democrat in the White House. Any disagreement?

Sister Toldjah live-blogged the event. A small taste 4 U:

Update 36: My initial impressions are that political junkies learned nothing new tonight from the debate, outside of getting to know Gravel a lot better – LOL. There wasn’t a lot of interaction between the candidates and I think that’s the way [MSNBC's moderator Brian] Williams and co. wanted it. A lot of the responses were canned, but made for good soundbites for Democrats who are still undecided. I really can’t get over the length of time it took John Edwards to answer the question about who he considered to be his moral leader. Just proves what a pompous self-important twit he is. I really do believe if he were to answer it honestly he’d say “you’re looking at him.�?

Inconvenient Truthiness:

Senator Hillary Clinton overcame the concerns of if a woman could become President during this hour and a half. She was forceful but soft-spoken, moderate and the definition of Presidential. Her approval rating in the MSNBC online poll changed drastically for the positive.

Gravel was, in my opinion, a madman. He was the loose cannon on the team. He said that other candidates on the panel actually scared him. When asked who, he cited the “top tier” candidates. Gravel was particularly angry the entire time, and seemed to think no one was qualified.

Ted’s Soapbox:

Everyone seemed to have the usual answers, Hillary seemed to have the most “rehearsed�? answers and she also seemed to sidestep more questions than anyone else. Kucinich and Gavel seemed to have the most original plans and platforms of anyone, it is unfortunate they don’t have the money or name power as the status quo contenders. I really liked both Kucinich’s and Gavel’s plans for Iraq.

–Cadillac Tight has a MUST READ HERE giving its view of each candidate. An excerpt of its conclusion: “Predictions? Edwards continues to be the netroots darling, while slipping in the polls nationwide. Hillary and Obama will remain neck and neck. Richardson will enter the first tier by August. Gravel drops out by August. Kucinich wastes time and money once again by staying in until the bitter end.”

Also MUST READ Taylor Marsh who felt it was a “very good night” for Ms. Clinton. We won’t quote from it since it needs to be read in full.

See our earlier post on the debate HERE.

Author: CAGLE CARTOONS

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29 Comments

  1. I think you are wrong about Chris Dodd. His lack of performance tonight if one can characterize it that way was due to the limited number of questions he received. I am from Iowa and he has been well received in the state (and we are the first voters). If it weren’t for the media telling us who is and who is not viable, Dodd would have a much broader and wide ranging level of support. That being said I think his style of campaigning – small events, very personal – will serve him very well at least in my state of Iowa!

  2. I wish they’d use university debate professors instead of network anchors, to pose the questions and moderate things. Brian Williams and the other mousse-heads continue to spoil these events, making them seem more like infotainment commercials than serious debates.

  3. If this is an example of what politics will look like in the coming one party state, then what are all of the political junkies going to do?

  4. Biden actually replied “Yes”.

  5. I disagree with your assessment of Congressman Dennis Kucinich. His view turned out to be absolutely correct last two elections! I believe he is correct now. What he says may not be what you want to hear, but it is correct. Telling people what they want to hear gets people elected, but just look what it has done to our country!

  6. People will certainly disagree with assessments of candidates! For instance, I just read that Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell thought Gravel was a great addition to the debate because he is a “bomb thrower” who tests their thinking. I had quite a different reaction than they do…but when that happens, I shrug and realize that we all see these things differently through our own individual prisms .

  7. Biden said, “Yes” and this correction should be posted

  8. Kevin Hayden- “mousse-heads”…lol. (“legends in their own mind”..to borrow a phrase from Clint Eastwood)

    I agree with you. WTF does the media know but entertainment value questions? The media should “cover” the event, not control it. In other words, run the camers and give after event commentary. Maybe both the left and the right can agree on this point? Should be a law.

  9. I like Matthews, but he was obviously hoping the debates would be enlivened by the candidates attacking each other, and was disappointed when they treated each other civilly and with respect ( except for Gravel who was rude to everyone)

    As a registered Democrat, I was looking to see if the candidates could distinguish themselves from each other, and trying to guess if their expressed solutions to our various dilemmas would work in the real world. For me, the debate was enlightening, and I was glad that the Democrats didn’t provide the fireworks that Chris Matthews was looking for (he may have been more concerned over MSNBC ratings for the debate than how the candidates conducted themselves.

    I thought most of the performances were pretty solid- with few obvious stumbles, which leads me to believe that Democrats will have a better choice this time around than in 2004 with Kerry and Dean.

  10. I have to agree that Edwards was a disappointment. His followers are rabid and would go nasty on this but, it’s not to be mean. I expected more from him. Just an off night.
    Hillary surprised me. I am not a fan of Hillary. I dislike her. But, was surprised by her performance and give her deserved kudos.
    My candidate came off presidential and apparently many other people thought so as well. Obama won the polling hands down on MSNBC.
    When attacked by the sunshine boys, he held his own quite well while still looking distinguished. Quite impressive.
    And like Matthews before the establishment pundits came in to gush on Hillary, his take that Obama was by far the most sophisticated was spot on.
    You do need to send this to Taylor Marsh. I am beginning to think that she has a bug up her behind about Obama. Don’t know why but, she picks at everything the man does beyond being believable. She is on a rant over the man. Maybe because he upstage and bests her candidate.

  11. I admit, when it comes to Hilary, I keep looking for an “Iron Maggie Thatcher”. Somehow I don’t think I’m ever going to find what I’m looking for. Though we need national healthcare BAD.

  12. Gravel is playing a very important role here. He shifts the Overton Window: Kucinich appears sane in comparison.

    Gravel tells the naked truth: the others say the same thing in a more “presidential” style and thus what they say is not deemed radical any more – it was just 2 years ago when it would have been tagged as “socialist”. Now it is middle-of-the-road.

    Great overall. They all did well (although Obama’s inability to say anything concrete about anything drives me nuts), except I cannot stomach Biden – he is deeply wrong about everything he ever said in his life about foreign policy and the world, yet he is somehow regarded as an expert in exactly that area! His analogizing Iraq to Balkans is wrong because his understanding of the Balkans was always completely wrong. Duh! Growl!

    DKos readers thought that Edwards won the debate and I agree although he looked tired – he can be much better. It looked like Edwards and 7 dwarves as far as seriousness, maturity, content, presentation and even that “presiential look”. Clinton needs to start looking AT the camera. Dodd is grey in every way. Richardson disappointed me.

    At the end of the MSNBC coverage, when their online poll was announced, Matthews said something about the way teh audience disagreed with pundits. It is because pundits are ignorant. The audience who watched and voted online has a much better grasp of politics and better knowledge of all candidates’ positions, voting records and personal histories than any of the pundits. And why are Republicans, Republican sympathizers and people who think that GOP is stilla legitimate political party allowed to comment on Democratic candidates on TV?

  13. vwcat- I would agree that Edwards failed to stand out, and was surprised that I actually thought Biden, who usually shoots himself in the foot with verbal gaffes, seemed better informed and more confident than he did. I think Edwards has chosen poverty as his signature issue, but failed to make any substantial points on it. He doesn’t seem as knowledgeable on foreign affairs as the others, which is extremely important in winning over independents.

  14. I was reassured that the leaders of the Democratic party are centrists who reflect and lead the temperament of most of the country.

  15. Last night’s debate told me more about the press (in the way they’ve decided to cover it) than it did about that candidates themselves (most of whom failed to put forth any new substantive initiatives that we didn’t already know about).

    Everyone in the mainstream press seems to parroting the same lines, choosing to emphasize certain candidates over others, and ignore important issues and questions in favor of

    I got to go for now, but I intend to write up something later today about last night’s debate, focusing not only on the candidates themselves, but the way the mainstream press and bloggers have reacted.

  16. coturnix- so are you saying that Democratic pundits should not be allowed to comment after the GOP candidates debate next week? I like to get different perspectives on the debates- as long as the pundits don’t use half truths and smear tactics. As far as I could tell Scarborough and Buchanan were fair to the candidates- and didn’t inject the usual partisan vitriol that you get from the FNC crowd.
    Thank you MSNBC! The pundit who DID annoy me is usually my favorite commentator, Chris Mattews. He just was looking for them to cannibalize each other, and declared the debates dull when they didn’t.

  17. Coturnix, don’t worry, after seeing that lame excuse for a debate, I wouldn’t dream of voting for one of your precious candidates. You can sink yourself all by yourself.

    Random thoughts…..

    MSNBC does a good game show format, but not a debate…

    Does anyone actually ever answer the question asked? (which tax would you raise? how would you react to a terrorist attack?)

    Richardson sounds more cogent on healthcare than Edwards ever has.

    Why is everything tied to Bush?……is Bush a candidate in the next election? They had better learn that isn’t going to work too well in a real head-to-head debate wiht the Republican candidate.

    Kucinich owns a gun???? Whoa, nellie!

    Please make Gravel your candidate.

  18. Casual- Don’t pretend you had any intention of voting for any of them before you watched it, either, lol. That’s pretty obvious from the context of most of your comments on this site.

  19. Mostly, but not entirely, true.

    If it becomes McCain v. Richardson, I would go Richardson.

  20. God I hate those one minute answers debates! It does little more than force the candidates into a ‘dueling soundbites’ competition, which plays into Edwards and Clintons strengths and plays against someone like Barack Obama, who generally speaks in full paragraphs.

    I’d say Clinton won due to the format, yet she did give one answer that may come back to haunt her–her answer to the question of what she would do if America were attacked again by AQ was essentially a regurgitation of the George W. Bush philosophy. She obviously doesn’t understand terrorism or how to succesfuly fight it.

  21. I think Biden is the one candidate that distinguished himself last nite from the lower tier. He proved that he can articulate his thoughts well and that he also has a personality.
    And I have to disagree with the comment about Biden being a familar face in a party that is looking for someone new. If that was the case, then why is Hillary to frontrunner??

    I originally started out this campaign season as an Obama supporter. But the more I watch him, the less I like him. He is interesting to listen to but he doesn’t say anything.

    Hillary’s problem right now is that she is playing ‘safe’. I don’t blame her, I would probably do the same thing if I was her BUT I wish she would stop playing to all sides. Like her comment on Walmart. It is early enough in the campaign for her to take a stand.

    Richardson was the disappointment of the night. I have been open to him because of his impressive resume’. Yet he appeared nervous and unable to get his ideas out in a “Presidential” manner. I do give him kudos for his line about people don’t want a blowed-dry President. I pick him for VP.

  22. Here’s another resource on the candidates, basically the candidate youtube videos organized by issue…

    http://www.ExpertVoter.org

    Debates have their place, but sometimes you need a simple, quick way of comparing the candidates based on their own words.

    gary

  23. My initial impression was that Dodd, Biden and Obama said nothing at all memorable or noteworthy (other than Biden’s “Yes”). I watched this debate partly to find out what all the hype is about Obama, and I just didn’t see it.

    I agree that Richardson was much too unpolished for network TV, but I feel like at least he had a personality and said something of substance – he was the only candidate to mention Darfur.

  24. Thanks for the summary. Very cleanly done.
    At this point, Biden is the one guy in DC I would trust to actually deal with the situation in Iraq.
    Answers limited to one minute? I guess that would be a great idea if only we could get problems to be so restrained. Sigh.

  25. Hello…

    I thought the debate was wonderful.

    Almost all of the candidates were able to get their points across without cutting each other down or tearing each other apart for the amusement of an audience of people many of whom just love to see friends and colleagues shred each other for sport.

    By doing this the Democratic hopefuls are showing an example of unity, with grace and dignity and an example of performance in which the good of the people, the country and the party are put above and ahead of personal goals — which may never be met, but are even less likely to be met vaunting ego over ideals.

    Kucinich got a little over the top with his passion and Mike Gravel got a little crabby and crusty, but I was mostly proud of all of them.

    But for me, Biden’s one word answer that momentarily stunned Brian Williams into slack-jawed silence, was the high-point of the night.

    And I never been so fond of Hillary as I was last night, when she held herself with grace and dignity, answering the questions directly and with confidence. She looked downright Presidential!

    The one who really did himself in as far as I’m concerned was Richardson, saying that he was willing to give AG Gonzales a pass for all his… deceptions… because Gonzales is Hispanic.

    No one gets a pass for the things, Gonzales has done and covered up and flat lied about.

    And the people of the country would really have a problem with someone in the White House who was willing to give people a pass for their bad acts simply because they have the same genetic origins.

    Richardson may have been honest about his feelings, but his feelings need serious personal reevaluation and he should NOT be in the White House while he sorts this out.

    Oh, and he may have mentioned Darfur, but he tried to lasso and use all the hot topics he could gather in his kitchen sink of ALL the things he’s gonna do and problems he’s gonna solve in the first 4 days in office…

    Ye-ah.

    Well that’s my opinion and hopefully worth more than anybody paid me for it. *L*

  26. PS Somebody here quoted Joe Biden and the Time Magazine quote of his quip, incorrectly.

    His one-word answer was “YES.” It was NOT “No.”

    Here:

    “Biden, however, got the biggest laugh of the night when moderator Brian Williams brought up his well-deserved reputation for talking too much and committing gaffes. “Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?” Williams asked. Biden’s answer: ‘Yes.’ Which was followed by a long, pregnant silence. ”

    http://www.time.com/time/natio.....56,00.html

  27. I’ve transcribed the initial 14 minute segment of the debate over at The Coming Realignment (although, the entire transcript of the debate can be found here). I also offered some comments of my own. My initial impression:

    Overall, as much as I disagree with the policies of President Bush and the Republicans in Congress, I haven’t been too enthused about the Democrats, and last night’s debate did nothing to change that. Four years after our government invaded Iraq, the Democrats have finally solidified themselves as antiwar. Unfortunately, the party seems divided between those who want to end the war now and those who seem content to allow it to drag on until the end of the Bush presidency. And despite their attempts to appeal toward the political center of the American electorate, the Democrats running for president continue to espouse an unabashedly economically populist message. Apparently, even after six years of out-of-control spending by President Bush and a Republican-controlled congress, the Democrats aren’t willing to abandon their “Big Government” ways.

  28. The debate was the same non-commital drivel from Edwards, Obama and Hilary. Quite frankly they all said the same thing. The only difference was
    their personalities.

    I am tired of personalities. I am looking for a leader, someone who can inspire and take us in a new direction. That is definitely not Hilary, Obama
    or Edwards. Biden seemed to carry himself well but didn’t offer anything of substance. The same with Dodd. Richardson seemed like he had a lot to say and not enough time to say it. I don’t like his personality but I do like his message. Dennis appeared as a small man with big ideas. He was not particuarily inspiring, but he was the only candidate with a clear vision for the future. Gravel was their for entertainment. He had nothing to offer but outrageous comments.

    Given the choice between, Hilary, Obama, and Edwards. They are all like Kerry in 04′ — who cares! They all offer the status quo. Pick one it doesn’t make any difference. Who do you think is the prettiest?

    With Biden, and Dodd they have enough guts to stand up and make some changes, but mostly they have nothing new to offer. Kucinich and Richardson are two guys who could really make a difference. Gravel was there for entertainment value. He has no clear position. Why is he even running?

    You know, the presidential race isn’t a horse race. You don’t get a payoff because you bet on (voted for) the winning candidate. The media slants everything to support their favorite candidates. If you buy what they are selling it becomes a beauty contest. Vote for the prettiest candidate or for your favorite personality because nothing is going to change.

    If you want your vote to count for something. Then vote for change, stand up for the little man and vote for Dennis Kucinich.

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