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Jeffrey Feldman Headshot

Debate Post-Game

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The big question that we should all be asking after this first debate is this:

Have we learned anything since 2004?

In other words, have Democrats figured out that winning debates is about framing principles, not bouncing facts? At the end of the first official 90 minutes of the 2008 campaign, the answer is "sort of"--some yes, some no.

Unfortunately, the format was terrible ("20 second answers, please...") and many of the questions were ridiculous ("Name your favorite Supreme Court Justice.") But despite that, a strong Democratic candidate who expects to get the nomination should have treated every question as a chance to move the debate to big principles that framed--not just individual answers--but the entire conception of government, foreign policy, health, and the public good.

Who was the best at that in last night's debate?

John Edwards: American Principle
For me, the decisive moment in the debate came about 60 minutes into the discussion when Edwards answered a question about foreign policy issues other than Iraq. After a brief comment about Russia becoming "autocratic" under Putin, Edwards then lifted the discussion up to a broad frame about America's role in the world:

What we have to ask ourselves is: How does America change the underlying dynamic of what's happening in the world? For us to be able to do that, the world has to see America as a force for good again.

After that comment, Edwards proposed a series of big initiatives that would demonstrate "America's commitment to humanity," such as: investment abroad in education, sanitation and economic development. The point was profound and demonstrated, in just a few sentences, the fundamental difference between a progressive, Liberal worldview and an authoritarian, Conservative worldview. In that broad logic provided by Edwards, we could feel what it would be like to finally breathe again--to be freed from the stranglehold of Bush's monstrous conception of a "global war on terror," through which America becomes a constant bully beating a one way path to global disdain and paranoid isolation.

Given that the debate was largely about Iraq--that the election will be, largely, about Iraq--Edwards ability to articulate that vision set him apart. No other candidate struck that fundamental progressive tone or asked a basic question about the underlying moral principles through which we make decisions, build power, and exercise authority.

As such, Edwards was the only candidate who painted a picture of how the world would change if he became president. All other candidate's answers seemed small by comparison, cautious, overly concerned with a context defined by political battles.

Chris Dodd: Equality
The second decisive moment in the debate came almost at the end when Chris Dodd was answering a question about the difference between civil unions and the Republican talking point "gay marriage." In a response that was astounding for its moral clarity, Dodd said:

I have two young daughters who may one day have a different sexual orientation than their parents.

When I heard that statement, I felt as if I had been snapped back through time--back to an era where Democrats did not equivocate about issues, but stood boldly in front of an audience and held the moral line. Dodd's point? Discrimination is wrong and he will not stand for it. His experience as a father has reminded him that America is a country built on equality and that core principle defines not only in the Constitution, but our conception of the family. For a President to make a decision that might someday exclude his own children from the full promise of America is not only wrong, according to Dodd, it cuts against the essence of who we are as people. Discrimination is not just immoral, it is bad for society, the fundamental building block of which is not "marriage," but the relationships between people--all people.

Dodd's answer came too late in the debate to define the entire evening, but it was very far reaching and set the stage for a discussion that far surpasses authoritarian threats or progressive platitudes. Equality is the principle on which this nation was founded, and the struggle to extend that principle to all members of our society is not only what defines or history and our government, but our kitchen tables as well.

Hilary Clinton: Government Protects
Although not a "Wow!" moment in the debate, the third key moment came right at the end when Hilary Clinton was answering what was probably Brian Williams best question: Is WalMart good or bad for America? Without hesitation, Clinton smiled and gave this answer:

Well, it's a mixed blessing.

She then went on to frame what is one of the most difficult issues for Democrats: a 21st Century perspective on the American economy. WalMart, Clinton explained, was a good thing at first because it brought so many products and jobs to the country and in particular to small communities. But it becomes a problem when government does not set "rules" by which it must operate. This is a profoundly important frame that she made clearly and with an ease that was disarming.

Her point was that we do not live in a "free market" economy, but an economy where we put our trust in good government to set rules for the game that are fair and sustainable. America is best, she reminded the audience, "when Democrats are setting those rules." How true that simple statement is. The economy thrives in America when there is good regulation, not when regulation is dismantled through Republican corruption and fantasy claims about "trickle down" economics in a marketplace with no rules. That is a progressive liberal worldview. We do not believe that the WalMarts of our country are purely bad, but that there must be sound regulations so that they strengthen, rather than undermine, our economy and our society.

Bill Richardson: Bring People to the Table
Throughout the debate, Richardson was the most forceful. He gave a very clear sense that he would be an impatient executive--in the positive sense of "impatient" meaning: wanting to get things done. At one point, however, Richardson struck a different tone. In answer to a question about a post-Castro Cuba, Richardson voiced an approach to leadership radically distinct from what this country has seen in the White House for some time, saying he would, "bring Cuban Americans into the dialog."

What might have seemed like a minor point about community relations was in fact a broad frame that Richardson extends into his remarks with consistency and authenticity. Problem solving, he implies, cannot be done by a "decider" simply making decisions, but by a strong leader who understands that true power is the ability to bring people to a common goal. To express this point, Richardson talks often of convening "conferences" and "summits" and bringing people to the table for "dialogue." And yet, Richardson is also a very strong executive.

Richardson described a view of leadership based on a radical break from the current Republican view of power. Problems must be solved by strong leaders who bring people together, not by imposing will from the top through implements of finance and instruments of violence.


Scorecard: Edwards on Top, Dodd/Richardson Make Gains, Clinton Holds Steady

The rest of the candidates performed well, but did not excel at framing any particular area of the debate.

Obama was halting and not comfortable in the format. Kucinich was forceful, but ultimately focused too much energy on accusation. Biden had good points about foreign policy, but no broad vision on leadership. Gravel landed moralistic jabs, but was unfocused. These candidates did not lose ground in the debate. They simply did not grab hold of any distinct areas of the debate with bold framing.

In the end, then, it was Edwards who rose to the top by framing the restoration of American power in terms of a rededication to humanity. Dodd and Richardson each made clear gains in the field with bold statements of principle and clear conceptions of leadership. And Clinton held steady with a clear frame for a liberal economy. All this results in a first debate scorecard looking something like this:

  1. Edwards
  2. Dodd/Richardson
  3. Clinton
  4. Obama
  5. Biden
  6. Kucinich
  7. Gravel

Of course, framing analysis does not go hand in hand with polling--but what the heck.

if I had to guess how things will work out by the polling numbers over the next few days, I would say that Edwards will take a 3-5% points away from Obama, Dodd and Richardson will each gain 2-3% points and Clinton will remain roughly where she is. That prediction in terms of gains and losses in next weeks polls would looke something like this:

  • Edwards: gain 3-5%
  • Dodd/Richardson: gain 2-3%
  • Clinton: (no change)
  • Obama: down 2-3%
  • Biden: (no change)
  • Kucinich/Gravel: down 1%

Not such a big deal statistically, I suspect, but interesting enough to make for some weekend headlines.

(cross posted from Frameshop)