Saturday, January 05, 2008

NH Democratic Debate Performance Assessment

How'd they do? Well, here's my two cents:

1. Edwards - I thought he was impressive. Clearly passionate and with just the right balance of seriousness and humor. His weakness was harping on the class warfare angle. He makes an effective impassioned plea, but I think it's too divisive a position.
2. Obama - Cautious and, surprisingly, less inspirational than he can be. I think it was clear that he, as the frontrunner with momentum, came in prepared to have to defend himself against attacks while being careful not to make any mistakes. He handled himself well against Hillary, not allowing himself to be too nonplussed, defensive, and put out by her attacks. And Obama should buy Edwards a steak (or, better yet, perhaps give Edwards a VP nod!) for being his best surrogate defender against Hillary. Edwards did the dirty job of hitting back hard against Hillary when she went on the attack, and this allowed Obama to be spared the indignity of descending to the negative space of having to bite back. Edwards allowed Obama to basically take the high ground and yet still have his back covered.
3. Richardson - In his position as a long-shot candidate, he seemed the most relaxed and also made great use of his underdog position to be the one to mediate the barbs among the top three and to even take the high ground of advocating civility in the exchange. He came across as very informed and with good administrative experience, especially on energy policy (no surprise there); but he just didn't do or say anything to elevate himself beyond his status as a potential VP pick.
4. Clinton - She was best when she stuck with her positions on policy and god-awful when she sought to go after Obama or Edwards, which was, unfortunately, much too often in this debate. Her attacks came across as vindictive, mean, and especially desperate. You could feel her defensiveness and panic, and that she sensed the prize of the nomination slipping out of her grasp. She responded to the "change" motif of Obama and Edwards as if it were a personal attack. And surely, Obama and Edwards are utilizing this motif to differentiate themselves from Hillary; but, by God, the change motif is not something she needs to get so personally defensive about.

My ranking with grades:

1. Edwards - B+
2. Richardson - B
3. Obama - B-
4. Clinton - C

My favorite moment had nothing to do with any candidate response, but with the debate moderator himself. As a university professor myself, I got as much of a laugh as the audience did at the absurdity of his comment that a husband and wife team of college professors would have a combined income of over $200,000.

I guess it's a good thing that I think all of these Primary debates are basically worthless outside of entertainment value and have negligible impact on voting behavior, since I'm an Obama supporter and I think Obama didn't perform all that well. I think the stump campaigning is where victory gets made, and Obama is unrivalled in this regard.


jeffrey said...

Obama actually sounds better to me in this somewhat relaxed Q. and A. format than he does on the stump where I am continually fail to see what see what the kids think the big deal is. (One example: Obama likes to use the apocryphal "whispering Republican/Independant" joke that pols have been using for as long as I can remember... Reagan liked that one a lot... but he routinely flubs the delivery... embarrassingly so. Just one example and just my opinion)

I would say the the class issue is actually Edwards's strength. His weakness is the incessant blinking and lip smacking that goes on while he talks.

The phrases "God Awful" and "Hillary Clinton" just seem to go together. She already appears petty and vindictive to most voters and this impression is only magnified when she goes on the attack.

Huck said...

jeffrey - I wonder why you think Obama sounds better in this format. Is it because he's more subdued? Is it because the motivational pep rally energy is virtually absent? I think Obama is a more clear-headed thinker when he can string together coherent thoughts beyond just a couple of comments in a disjointed give-and-take and can build up to a kind of intellectual (and inspirational) crescendo of ideas and themes.

I guess someone who embraces class conflict as an absolute necessity for problem-solving would see this aspect of Edwards as a strength. As someone who is conflict-averse, I don't find this a strength. I embrace grass-roots activism, but in a collaborative community sense -- and community includes the upper as well as middle and lower classes. Solving the problems of social and class inequities in the Edwards way leads us less to dialogue in civil spaces and more to confrontation that has an all-or-nothing tinge to it. I think that is a wrong-headed and ultimately dead-end approach to solving the problems of social inequality that our country faces.

jeffrey said...

I'd say something like that definitely explains why I'm more impressed with Obama in a situation that requires him to think on his feet and answer questions than in a scripted "crescendo of ideas and themes" as you say. The former gives one a better sense of the candidate's actual capacity for dealing with conflict (which, believe it or not, is what the business politics and government is generally consumed with) while the latter amounts to little more than bland meaningless condescension. In other words, I don't see him as more but less subdued in the Q & A format. The prepared speech doesn't require "clear-headed thinking" so much as decent acting skills.

For some reason that escapes me, the Obama cultists tend to value the "inspiration" they draw from these scripted commercials than they do getting anything of substance from the candidate. I could chalk this up to the disturbing degree to which modern citizens are conditioned to be consumers rather than critics but that would just be speculation on my part.

As to your second point, all I can say is I think it's perfectly polite and socially preferable for a person to be "conflict-averse" but politics is by definition conflict. If there were a magic rational solution to the question of who should rightfully hold and exercise power, there would in fact be no need for politics at all... or at least no need for democracy.

Huck said...

Being a college professor who values the lecture podium as much as the seminar discussion, I can see the value of both types of "performance." I don't think Obama is bad in Q&A sessions, only that he's not as good as when he's in front of a crowd giving a good lecture. Maybe I should be clearer a bit in what I am trying to convey. Surely the stump speech is mostly theatre, which is meant to be inspiring. And with a good, scripted idea, there's nothing wrong with inspirational theatre. But Obama does just as well, I think, when he's giving what might be considered "boring" policy speeches, too. While he's a very good seminar participant and moderator, he's a better lecturer. But let's not forget that both roles require critical thinking skills, a sharp mind, and a mastery of ideas.

As to your conception of politics - and particularly democratic politics - as conflict, I think you are using the wrong word. Democratic politics is competitive, not conflictual. It is based upon the pluralism of competing interests working towards compromise. Hardly anyone is ever completely satisfied with the outcomes of a pluralistic and competitive democratic process, but all should be able to live with what the outcome produces. A politics of "conflict" implies a winner-loser scenario where to the victor go the spoils and to the guillotine go the losers. A democratic politics of competition implies a winner-loser scenario where the loser has to buy the beer, but where we all still get the pleasure of drinking the beer together when the game is over and washing away whatever animosities or grudges the competition might have produced.

Hypothetical: If feeding my family depended on the stability of my job as a mid-level manager at a Health Insurance company or at an Energy company, I'd be very nervous and worried about the "conflict" rhetoric of Edwards, no matter how reform-minded and progressive I might be with regard the industry in which I work.