In a fiery confrontation that had plenty of tense moments, Hillary Clinton appeared much more determined than she had in last Thursday's debate and attacked Barack Obama on many fronts at once, forcing the Illinois senator to stay on the defensive for much of the night. But Obama was happy to oblige, avoiding any stumble that could alter the race's fundamentals -- and that is really all that a front-runner has to do.
Unfortunately, the dominant story tonight was the moderation of Tim Russert and Brian Williams, who managed to exemplify the Clinton campaign's contention that the media is favoring Obama while simultaneously throwing misguided questions Obama's way.
The moderators versus the candidates
Early in the debate, Hillary Clinton protested that she was being treated unfairly and that she was being asked a question first a bit too often, implying that Obama was then able to simply reiterate her response and avoid taking any risk. In an explicit reference to the Saturday Night Live skit that accuses the media of being in the tank for the Illinois Senator, Clinton asked "Maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow."
The line was over-the-top at that point of the debate, and that made it look rehearsed. But the determination with which observers are now pillorying Clinton for that one-liner is perplexing considering that the rest of the debate often looked like the SNL caricature.
Early in the night, Brian Williams read a quote in which Clinton was calling in question Obama's foreign policy preparedness. He then turned to the Illinois Senator and asked, "How were her comments about you unfair?" Even granting that this was not meant as an endorsement of Obama's defense versus Hillary's attack, the question was phrased as an unbelievable softball. And that was not the softest the Senator would receive.
Soon after, Williams did not let Clinton respond because, he solemnly declared, "Television does not stop;" he did not explain, of course, why advertisements at that particular moment were so absolutely necessary. And the end of the commercial break made the scene even more caricatural. Brian Williams announced that it was time to show Barack Obama make an hyperbolic statement (the show had started with a clip of Senator Clinton's "Shame on you" press conference). But instead, we were treated to a second clip of Clinton, one in which she derides Obama for believing that "the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing." Williams immediately explains that the video was shown as a mistake and that he was indeed intending to show a clip of an over-the-top Obama moment... and goes on to ask the Illinois Senator to comment on the clip that had just been (inadvertently) shown anyway. Just like the "How were her comments about you unfair?", the invitation's vague phrasing was a stunning softball -- and it can hardly even be described as a question.
The night's last unbelievable moment occurred when Tim Russert asked the candidates what they knew about the man likely to soon be elected as the new Russian President. Clinton answered without mentioning the man's name (for the record, it's Dmitri Medvedev), and Russert fired a direct shot: "Do you know his name?" Clinton stumbled and stuttered out a very deformed version of Medvedev's name, falling victim to the most outrageous moment of gotcha politics Russert has tried at one of these debates (and there are plenty to choose from, for example his attempt to get Hillary to comment on a statement without telling her it had been her husband that had uttered it).
To be fair to Tim Russert, he did try to balance things by aiming some tough questions Obama's way. Unfortunately, they were cheap shots that only lowered the tone of the debate. First came Russert's pushing the non-issue of Barack Obama's ties to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam: "Do you accept the support of Louis Farrahkan?" Even more shocking was Russert's back-and-forth with the Illinois Senator over public finance. Russert repeatedly asked Obama how he could possibly not commit to taking public financing when he had pledged to doing so last year.
Trouble is, Obama has never pledged such a thing. What he has said is that he will strongly consider doing so if the GOP nominee abides by public financing as well: "I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election." Obama's response to Russert did not make this point clearly, and this led to a truly surreal post-debate scene. Talking to Russert, Keith Olbermann put Obama's commitment in full context to make exactly this point, but then added that he was not doing so to criticize Russert's question but to wonder why Obama had not brought this nuance up. In response, Russert replied that he had been surprised as well, and that he would have expected Obama to make that argument. Does this mean that a debate should consist of moderators throwing out claims that they have consciously distorted? And it is really up to the candidates to rectify deformed quotes?
Obama versus Clinton
Clinton failed to make the debate about Obama as she was hoping it would be. She was surely counting on the moderators grilling the new front-runner, given that she was at the center of attention for most of 2007's debates; but she was denied as soon as Russert started grilling her on NAFTA. Sensing that this might be her last opportunity at a direct confrontation, Hillary did her best to attack Obama from all possible angles. Many of the arguments she used have been aired many times before; the debate over health care mandates, for example, echoed the discussion the candidates had just had on Thursday, though today's exchange was probably the most specific to date.
Other attacks were less expected. Clinton's argument that Obama always turns to his 2002 Iraq speech when the question of his qualifications and judgment arises was more forceful than usual, and so was her willingness to say that Obama had the leisure to oppose the war because he did not face the responsibility of action. Also, Clinton's charge that Obama has not held a single hearing on how to get NATO more involved in Afghanistan in his Senate subcommittee is not one we are used to hearing. Finally, Clinton much too eagerly jumped all over what she saw as too weak a response on Obama's part to the Farrakhan question.
Focused on giving his opponent as few openings as possible, Obama had no desire to fight back too strongly and prolong such exchanges. He spent most of the night on the defensive, and he did seem thrown off balance by some of the more unexpected lines of criticism. His response to the Subcommittee hearing argument -- that he had become the chair at the beginning of 2007, at the start of his campaign -- was particularly weak since the point Clinton was seeking to make was exactly that Obama jumped in the presidential race before accomplishing anything in the Senate.
But overall, he had come prepared to the deluge of attacks Clinton submitted him to and he answered all of her claims, avoiding any sort of stumble that she could pounce on. He almost stayed on the defensive out of choice and seemed eager to concede some points to his opponent: That might have allowed Clinton to score a point here and there, but it was not a victory on points that the New York Senator was seeking tonight. And Obama launched just enough sharp attacks of his own -- "Senator Clinton often says that she is ready on Day 1, but in fact she was ready to give in to George Bush on Day 1 on this critical issue." -- to make even the victory on points murky.
Clinton appeared ready to concede the race last Thursday, but she came to this debate ready to fight on. Had Clinton attempted this a year ago, she might have knocked Obama off balance. Unfortunately for her, this was the 20th debate of the campaign. Obama knew what was coming, knew how to answer and battled her to a draw. A week from Ohio and Texas, one of Clinton's last opportunities to change the race's dynamics passed and probably changed very little.