Philadelphia, Pa. — Judging by the immediate reaction online, it appears that the commentariat came away from Wednesday night’s Democratic debate on ABC with two impressions. The first is that Obama lost the debate, and the second is that ABC News moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous asked stupid questions. Both assessments are wrong.
On the first count, one cannot say whether Obama “won” or “lost” without considering what Hillary needed to accomplish. There are only two ways she can win the nomination now. Either she must overcome Obama’s lead in pledged delegates (a.k.a. those won during the primaries and caucuses), which is nearly impossible mathematically, or she must win the votes of enough superdelegates (a.k.a. Democratic-party bosses) to overturn the verdict of the party rank-and-file. For her to do that, she will have to persuade a majority of the superdelegates (or a majority of them must reach the conclusion on their own) that Obama cannot win in the general election against John McCain.
This is the reality of the race as the Politico’s Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen accurately described it last month, and Clinton wasn’t able to change it last night. For one thing, she demonstrated again that she can’t attack Obama on any front without opening herself up to similar charges. When she tried to exploit Obama’s connection to William Ayers, a former leader in the ‘60s domestic terror group the Weather Underground, Obama shot right back: “President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground,” he said, “which I think is a slightly more significant act… than me serving on a board with somebody.”
In the spin room after the debate, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson pointed to Obama’s slippery answers on gun control and argued that his credibility had taken a blow. But if Obama’s credibility has taken a blow, Clinton’s has taken a beat-down: During the debate, Stephanopolous pointed out that six out of ten voters in a recent poll now view her as dishonest. When asked to account for several factually untrue things she said recently about a 1996 trip to Bosnia, Clinton replied, “On a couple of occasions in the last weeks, I just said some things that weren’t in keeping with what I knew to be the case.” That’s as close as you’ll ever get to hearing a politician admit that she lied.
Other critiques of Obama’s performance — that he looked tired, or that he wasn’t as quick or as eloquent as usual — are not only irrelevant, but they also say more about the punditocracy’s expectations of Obama than they do about him. For months, the press has built Obama up to be this soaring, untouchable figure. For a bloc of pro-Obama commentators, especially, he could do no wrong.
But Barack Obama is just a politician, and like all politicians, he has very real limits. He has associated with some unsavory characters, in most instances because the political benefits of doing so outweighed the consequences. But nothing that came up at Wednesday night’s debate is likely to persuade an undecided superdelegate that these associations make Obama unelectable. Most of the superdelegates are politicians too and thus familiar with the pressures that politicians face.
The question of electability in the general election is the only one that matters anymore in the race for the Democratic nomination, and ABC’s moderators did a good job because they kept that in mind. Gibson and Stephanopolous asked questions about the candidates’ personal associations and the controversies surrounding some of their public positions (such as Obama’s decision to stop wearing a flag lapel pin). When the questions did focus on substantial matters, they concerned things like the right to bear arms, affirmative action, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the capital-gains tax.
Blogger Andrew Sullivan’s reaction was typical of many — he called it “one of the worst media performances I can remember — petty, shallow, process-obsessed, trivial where substantive, and utterly divorced from the actual issues that Americans want to talk about.” By those, he meant things like “the environment . . . interrogation [of terror suspects] . . . [and] healthcare.” But ABC’s debate was a success because it steered clear of issues like these, i.e. issues on which the candidates mostly agree. How many times have we heard Clinton and Obama argue endlessly over what amounts to a very minor difference in their health-care plans?
More importantly, McCain is not likely to challenge either Clinton or Obama on issues like the environment, interrogation, and health care in the general election. He will challenge them on issues like gun control, foreign policy, and taxes — the issues ABC covered — while outside groups will ensure that their personal controversies are in the public eye as November draws near.
The Democratic party’s superdelegates will face a momentous decision when its convention rolls around in August. If Hillary Clinton is still contesting the nomination, she will most likely be asking them to overturn the will of the primary voters and make her the nominee. They will only take such a risk if they are totally convinced that Obama can’t win in November. This was a debate for their benefit, and ABC did the right thing by testing the candidates on the issues that are bound to take center stage in the fall. On these issues, Obama might have stumbled. But he did not commit the kind of catastrophic blunder Clinton needs if she’s to have any hope of winning the nomination.
– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.