Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Democratic Party Debate: The Grades

I want to readdress the Democratic Party debate. Last night’s Educated Soldier did a thorough job of assessing the event. However, towards the end of the report, I felt that I really lost steam. A night of rest has reinvigorated me; encouraging refocused thoughts. Thus, I have decided to produce a critique of the debate a bit more basic in format and, ultimately, more enjoyable for the reader.

Taking a cue from Blogs for Fred Thompson, I want to rate the participants using a standard American scale: A through F. An “A”, of course, represents an exemplary performance; the most outstanding of all candidates. “F” stands for failure. To earn such a mark, I feel that you would have had to alienate your base or really greatly miss some genuine opportunities to shine. I may also implement a plus / minus (+ or -) system to grade with more refinement.

As always, there has to be at least a single detail that needs to be brought to attention before continuing. Here it is: I am judging the candidates on their performances. This is to say that I am more concerned with how intelligent, intellectual and “on top” of the topics each of the candidates seemed to be. Their platforms will hold less weight. This is for two reasons: First and, most obviously, is that as a conservative, there isn’t much that I agree with the platforms so it would be a futile effort for me to dredge in such criticism and, second, this debate didn’t go very far in introducing any real platforms anyway. Those details seem to always hide until after the Primaries and the introduction of the Presidential Debates.

Now, on with the festivities.

The Winner

If I would have created this post and assessed grades directly after the debate last night, this category would have been entitled “The Winners” (notice the use of the plural). However several factors worked to change my mind. The most notable is one probably unfair to the candidates but surfaced nonetheless:

I visited other sites. I read their own assessments of the debate and I found myself agreeing with them. The more I became influenced, the more I realized that there was really a single clear winner last night.

*Drum Roll please*

Senator Joe Biden: I really think he did everything right. More importantly, he did nothing wrong. This is important because he isn’t considered a top runner in this race and any little misstep at the debate could have been lethal (which is something I will address when discussing one of the night’s biggest losers).

If the Iraq War issue is the primary concern among Democratic voters and, really, the American populace as a whole, which recent Senate antics have seemed to have proven true, than Senator Biden easily portrayed himself as the Democratic candidate who most strongly had a grasp on the country’s most important issue.

He used this topic to utterly deflate Governor Richardson by exposing the Governor’s proposal of a six-month withdrawal as implausible. He also presented a well considered political plan for a troop withdrawal himself and scored points for declaring that any unilateral troop removal (without considering the need for altered political strategy in the country) would ultimately result in the deaths of those Americans left in the Green Zone. Senator Biden impressed by being able to suggest withdrawal in a manner that seemed sensible to even one of the War’s most persistent supporters: me.

Senator Biden then completed the mission that Senators Obama and Edwards failed: he rhetorically slayed Senator Clinton. Both Senators were asked how they would end the conflict in Darfur. Senator Biden was adamant in his response. He stated that American troops need to make a presence there and that a no-fly zone needs to be implemented. Senator Clinton tried to echo Biden’s passion but was tripped up when host Anderson Cooper asked her, point blank, if she supported the use of American troops in the region. While Senator Biden stood true to his convictions when posed this same question, Senator Clinton faltered and, ultimately, took her answer into topics more comfortable to her.

Grade: A+

"Second Tier" Winners

Barack Obama: If one candidate of the night was most successful in entering the debate with a mission and then following through with that mission, it was Senator Obama. He wanted to talk about education and the influence of special interests. And the junior Senator didn’t let any question get in the way of his talking points.

While that may sound deceptive to some, I give Senator Obama credit for sticking to his comfort zone with poise. As I stated last night, this guy has strong stage presence and is an outstanding speaker. Something else I had already mentioned is that my critique is an assessment of performances. With the exception of Senator Biden, Obama was the most exemplary performer.

He only nearly got tripped up once. Senator Gravel countered Obama’s claim that he does not accept special interest contributions by pointing out that Senator Obama did accept such funds, but was allowed to rule them out by categorizing them as “bundlers.” This may well have been true. It may have also been damaging. But no worries for a candidate on his feet like Senator Obama, who quickly retorted that one only has access to such financial dealings of candidates because of legislation that he, in fact, introduced. In retrospect, this comment has been called in to question as the legislation referenced by Senator Obama is, apparently, still awaiting approval. Let me remind you, however, that this is a debate and facts have never been a requisite at such an event.

So, on basis of solid theatrical talent alone, Senator Obama’s performance warrants:

Grade: B

Another candidate who was successful in so much as he didn’t hurt himself was Representative Kucinich. He only had one memorable moment during the debate; when he referenced biblical material in response to the question of reparations to African Americans for slavery. This moment was also notable for Kucinich because he was the only panel member willing to take a stand and state enthusiastically that he was ready to deliver those reparations. All other candidates predictably used the question to spin towards other topics.

Representative Kucinich loses some points because, as an individual with low support in the polls, he really needs to shine in these debates and present himself as a candidate different from the Obamas, the Clintons and the Edwards of the field. He gets a “B” for trying but, ultimately, this is the final assessment:

Grade B-

The Losers

Senator Mike Gravel: Remember when I said, above, that any misstep for a trailing candidate could prove lethal to their campaign???...

In trying to be professional in my assessment of this debate, I find myself at a current obstacle. Personally, I found the Senator to be incoherent in his answers and, in all honesty, quite eccentric (and if you are one of those that feels that eccentrics can be seen positively or negatively, let me assure you that in Senator Gravel’s case, it wasn’t good). Many times during the debate, he simply forgot to answer the questions. And this wasn’t necessarily intentional. Sure, Senator Obama rarely answered the questions directly either, but he at least transitioned smoothly and usually referenced the original question at some point during his answer. Senator Gravel just went on unrelated tangents. To me, this is the Ron Paul of the Democrats. The guy’s a wildcard and the people that support him probably d0 quite enthusiastically, but – after last night – I find myself not understanding how anyone could.

In the same manner that people remember Howard Dean's bellowing of "BEYAHHHHH!" during the downfall of his campaign, people will always be able to look back similarly at Senator Gravel exuberantly grumbling last night that the soldiers in Vietnam and Iraq "Died In Vain..."

Grade: F

Governor Bill Richardson: Blogs for Fred Thompson makes a great point. This guy is fighting for a Vice President spot and is slowly ruining his chances in that race as well. Senator Biden exposed Richardson’s plan for troop withdrawal in Iraq as hyperbolic rhetoric. Worse, Richardson’s performance was the antithesis to both Biden’s and Senator Obama’s. While they were graceful on stage, Governor Richardson seemed overwhelmingly uncomfortable. As much as I can feel sympathy for a politician living a life surely plump with luxuries, I feel it for him. Buried behind that unconfident tone and weak articulating ability are surely ideals that Governor Richardson genuinely holds dear and wants to express. He just hasn’t figured out how to do it.

Grade: F

Senator Edwards: While Edward’s performance wasn’t nearly the train wreck of the others in this category, it wasn’t stellar either. John Edwards needs to learn fast that he has to distinguish himself from Obama and Clinton. In my assessment, if Edwards looks equal to Clinton, Democrats are going to choose Clinton. It’s even worse for Edwards if he is seen as no different then Obama because the Senator from Illinois is ostensibly more likeable which goes a long way in a field like this. Furthermore, Senator Edwards’ admission that he is internally tormented by the debate over gay marriage is weak. Pick a side and fight for it. Or let your campaign fade. This is the man that suggested that the field needs to be whittled to allow for only those with an authentic opportunity of victory to continue. With sustained “non” performances like last night’s, the field will, indeed, be reduced and he will be one of those eliminated.

Senator Edwards’ grade gets raised from a flat “D” for his successful stage presence. While he was unconvincing in his individuality, he at least spoke articulately and seemed understanding of current issues. Nonetheless, the final assessment is still only:

Grade: D+

The Rest

Senator Chris Dodd: Maybe it was because of the format of the debate, but Senator Dodd had the distinction of being the most forgettable of the night. I can’t think of a single moment where the Senator did anything to interest me. However, on the same note, if he too is only fighting to ultimately become the Vice President, then he did what any such individual should do: polarize yourself as little as possible. In the end, it will be one of the night’s competition that will ultimately have to choose you as a running mate. It was a smart move for Senator Dodd to say nothing to make him stand out as being notably against any of the other candidates’ principles.

If this was the debate for potential Vice President candidates, Senator Dodd would receive an “A.” Unfortunately, this was a debate among hopefuls vying to become President. So, instead, Senator Dodd receives:

Grade: C

Senator Hillary Clinton: I have read the reports and apparently, Senator Clinton had strong body language last night and her stage presence was impeccable. That may be true, but her competition right now is Barack Obama and his own presence, in my assessment, was better.

Ultimately, Senator Clinton and Senator Obama are running on the same general platforms. They don’t differentiate much on most issues. So one of these candidates has to bring something to the table that exists outside the field of simple politics. Senator Clinton didn’t exhibit any extra qualities last night to cause me to find her any more appealing then Senator Obama. He, at least, displayed a clear sense of humor.

Senator Obama appeared genuinely interested in driving American forward through political discourse. I got the impression last night that Senator Clinton was genuinely interested in driving Senator Clinton’s legacy forward. Clinton may, in fact, be more qualified then Senator Obama for the position of the President of the United States. But ultimately, one is a junior Senator and the other is a candidate whose biggest contributions came as First Lady. Voters are going to look for intangibles. I detected the presence of none from Senator Clinton last night.


Grade: C

To access my earlier assessment of the debate, complete with more Candidate quotes and commentary, please click HERE

Democratic Party Debate

A brief few minutes ago, I watched the CNN / YouTube Democratic Party debate in its entirety. The event proved to be entertaining enough to sustain an audience in an environment that is typically a tough sell for political programs: the fraternity house.

While watching the debate, I was joined by two friends who I consider very strongly politically active. One I would describe as having “quite” liberal ideology (or “progressive” as Senator Clinton decided during the debate it should now be termed) the other; moderately liberal ideology, although he is quite the deceptive gentleman and he could be much more strongly to the left then I suspect but is disguising such a viewpoint behind a charismatic and witty mask. However, these are the type of individuals whom I expected to find interest in the debate. More pleasing a fact was that those that passed by the open door to my room also joined and participated in watching the debate.

All concerned seemed to agree on this assessment of the debate: it was overly “gimmicky.” Before tending to this blog, I caught a bit of the post-debate commentary on CNN hosted by Wolf Blitzer. Both he and his studio guests were applauding the format of the debate in self-congratulatory manner. The observers from room 105 of the U.S.F. Sigma Phi Epsilon House were less impressed.

My biggest complaint wasn’t that the candidates so easily dodged a majority of the questions. This is a phenomenon that occurs during all of these made-for-television debates. In fact, “debate” seems to be a faux pas; most of the individuals on the stage tonight referenced the posed questions just long enough to transition into whatever topic they had decided in premeditated style to address, regardless of relation to the question at hand. My complaint lies in this: “debate” seems to conjure thoughts of argument and competitive discourse. This rarely occurred tonight. In my opinion, this was much more a fault of the format of the debate then the intentions of the candidates themselves. In a rush to present as many user-submitted videos as possible, the “debaters” were given limited time to answer and, more often then not, only one opposing candidate was given an opportunity to retort. Without exchanges between candidates, tonight’s event hardly entered conversation-territory, let alone being worthy of the title of debate.

All that being said, some of the Democratic Party representatives did a good job of showcasing their oratorical talents. Barack Obama, for example, was the most successful in his performance. Others failed in their limited chance to shine. Senator Mike Gravel, for example, elicited laughs tonight from the spectators in my room. This wasn’t because of his wit but because of his apparent lack of coherence.

I took notes on the debate as points were presented as best I could, given the situation in my room at the time. I am using those notes, memory, and this quickly published TRANSCRIPT to report what occurred and my subsequent reactions. I hope you find this an informative endeavor.

Assessing the Debate

The first question challenged the candidates to explain how they would be different from current administration officials should they become elected President. Barack Obama used this as an opportunity to present what would be one of his two recurring themes of the night (the other theme dealing with education reform):

Now, part of that is bringing people together, as Chris said. But part of it is also overcoming special interests and lobbyists who are writing legislation that's critical to the American people.

Throughout the night, Senator Obama pressed on his working talking-point of defeating the special interest groups that are, in his assessment, corrupting government. This seems like a noble cause. Furthermore, I think that officials from either party would argue that the special interest lobbyists in Washington have far too much influence. The only question that I ask is this: What do you, as a candidate, suggest we do about it?

While lobbyists are given far too much authority with their big-money backing, I feel it is still fair to suggest that they represent some segment of the American population. If lobbyists aren’t suggesting ideology to government, then who is? As a whole, this issue seems far too simple. Government officials should rely solely on the needs and desires of their constituents. Examine more closely, however, and the situation becomes much more baffling. I genuinely would like to hear a solution that would eliminate special interests while still providing some format for the people to be heard. Single voices have trouble being discerned in a public body as large as America’s. Inevitably, they have to form groups with like-minded individuals. How do we prevent these groups from then being corrupted by their need to generate monetary resources to conduct certain logistical efforts? While it is easy to suggest that special interests need to be purged, I predict that it will be a much more difficult act to put into practice. This takes fundamental change in the operation of the democratic system as we know it.

An interesting question occurred a bit later in the debate. A video asked if any of the candidates are prepared to disburse reparations to African-Americans. The reparations are due, in the view of the questioner, because of the debt born from slavery. Only Representative Kucinich seemed ready to make such repayment:

The Bible says we shall be and must be repairers of the breach. And a breach has occurred.”

While that was an interesting answer, I want to again address the direction Senator Obama took in his answer. He used this question to emphasize his second focus of the night: the need for education reform:

I did a town hall meeting in Florence, South Carolina, in an area called the corridor of shame. They've got buildings that students are trying to learn in that were built right after the Civil War. And we've got teachers who are not trained to teach the subjects they're teaching and high dropout rates.

We've got to understand that there are corridors of shame all across the country. And if we make the investments and understand that those are our children, that's the kind of reparations that are really going to make a difference in America right now.”

While I may disagree with the core values of Senator Obama’s campaign, I must also cede to his rhetorical ability. Throughout the night, he found methods of turning nearly every issue into a topic of dilemma that could be quelled through either the elimination of special interests in Washington or the reform of public education throughout America. For the record, on the question at hand, Senator Obama was against direct reparations.

A later question promoted the sharpest answers of the night. A query was presented directly to Senators Clinton and Obama. The video referenced claims that Clinton didn’t represent female ideals strongly enough and that Obama wasn’t “Black enough” to satisfy the gender and race that they represented respectively. The question asked of their response to such claims. This video was commented on by several members of the panel and in intriguing fashion no less. Senator John Edwards used this opportunity to score big points:

“…anybody who's considering not voting for Senator Obama because he's black or for Senator Clinton because she's a woman, I don't want their vote. I don't want them voting for me.”

This answer elicited applause from the South Carolina crowd. Moments before Senator Obama had the wittiest response of the night in reference to his “Blackness:”

You know, when I'm catching a cab in Manhattan -- in the past, I think I've given my credentials.”

At this point, I have found myself wanting to submit to Senator’s Obama’s White House bid. He seems engaging; certainly charismatic, charming and intelligent. He is young and handsome. If he would only alter his stances on socialized health care, gun control, abortion, tax growth and a wealth of other issues, I may be thoroughly sympathetic to his cause. Alas, he is a junior Senator; he has plenty of time in his political career to come to grips with the downfalls of his platform.

Senator Clinton didn’t waste this opportunity either. She feels that the concerns of government should outweigh any based on gender or race:

And I trust the American people to make a decision that is not about me or my gender, or about Barack or his race or about Bill and his ethnicity, but about what is best for you and your family.”

However, at other points, she seemed all too eager to use her gender to promote her status as a champion of feminist causes. On the issue recently raised by Senator Edwards’s wife that he, not Senator Clinton, was a better advocate for issues specifically directed towards women, Clinton ended with this little barb:

But I think it is terrific. We're up here arguing about who's going to be better for women, because isn't that a nice change for everybody to hear.”

Moving on, we eventually came to what was probably the night’s single most problematic question for the candidates. Filmed in a refugee camp in Africa, the video asked the political contenders what they would do to end the oppression currently occurring in Darfur, Sudan. Senator Biden seemed to answer with the most support for using American troops to pacify the situation:

Twenty-five hundred American troops -- if we do not get the 21,000 U.N. troops in there -- can stop the genocide now. I have called for a no-fly zone. Everybody agreed, but you need troops on the ground.

The other candidates were less adamant in their convictions. Senator Clinton seemed to find trouble directly answering the question. She agreed with Senator Biden that action was warranted and that American personnel in that action was needed. However, when pressed by host Anderson Cooper, she wouldn’t submit to suggesting the direct use of American troops:

American ground troops I don't think belong in Darfur at this time. I think we need to focus on the United Nations peacekeeping troops and the African Union troops.”

Failing to muster an adequate response that was as passionate as Biden’s without alienating an anti-war base, Senator Clinton predictably took her response to an alternate discussion… by insulting the current situations in Afghanistan and Iraq:

We've got to figure out what we're doing in Iraq, where our troops are stretched thin, and Afghanistan, where we're losing the fight to Al Qaida and bin Laden.”

The most contentious portions of the debate developed when the candidates were pressed on the issue of troop withdrawal in Iraq. When this subject came up, Senator Biden referenced past legislation that he has an introduced that requires the implementation of a decentralized government in Iraq with separate Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states. Governor Bill Richardson repeatedly invoked his suggestion that all troops should be withdrawn in the next six months. Senator Biden responded harshly:

Number one, there is not a single military man in this audience who will tell this senator he can get those troops out in six months if the order goes today.”

Other somewhat stimulating topics were introduced but, in general, one should be able to ascertain where any of the mentioned candidates stand at this point. So with that in mind, I am going to bring this is to a close. However, I am going to attempt to do so more eloquently then did the debate. The final question asked each candidate to name one thing they liked and one thing they disliked about the opponents directly to their left and right. This was a predictably awkward and fruitless exercise. It did, however, promote one of the genuinely humorous tongue-in-cheek lines of the night: Senator Biden on his thoughts concerning Representative Kucinich (and this is paraphrased because the end of the debate is not yet available in transcript form):

There’s not a damn thing I like about him.”