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Slugfest in the Midwest: Democrats Debate in Ohio

Tonight brings the final debate in the Democrats' nominating contest before the crucial primaries of Ohio and Texas, and possibly the final Democratic debate period. Jewcy is here to liveblog all the action. How will Hillary Clinton attempt to knock … Read More

By / February 26, 2008

Tonight brings the final debate in the Democrats' nominating contest before the crucial primaries of Ohio and Texas, and possibly the final Democratic debate period. Jewcy is here to liveblog all the action. How will Hillary Clinton attempt to knock Barack Obama off his stride? By killing him with kindness? By insinuating that he's a substanceless phony (p.s. his middle name is 'Hussein')? By attacking the media? All three at once?

Palpable tension is in the air; the anticipation is feverish. Check back at 9pm EST, when the proceedings kick off, and don't forget to hit the refresh button.

8:45 (pre-show): Keith Olbermann is warming things up announcing the worrsssst perrssson in the worrrllllld. Here are the crucial questions going in: Will Obama simply try to coast, or will he take the offensive? How far out on a limb will Hillary go trying to bring Obama down? Presumably, if we're going to see the vaunted "kitchen-sink strategy" in action, it'll be in a free media venue like tonight's, since the Clinton campaign can scarcely afford to waste their remaining paid-media funds on aimless scattershot attacks.

Substantively, how much time will be given over to yet more soporific bickering on health care mandates? Hillary Clinton evidently believes this is the big issue where she can put daylight between herself and Obama, but there are a couple of problems with this line of attack. For one thing, David Cutler and Ted Marmor, the two best health care economists of the center-left in this country agree that mandates just don't matter that much for achieving universality (and also, ceteris paribus, more economic freedom is better than less — not that that's a catchy argument among Democratic primary voters). For another thing, Obama has proven perfectly capable of holding his ground and defending his non-mandate position. Maybe Clinton believes there's a massive constituency that's clamoring not only for universal health care, but also a specific health care mechanism, but she's, um, wrong about that.

8:55: Chuck Todd plays up the interrogative skills of Tim Russert. If your idea of an argument is the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says, rather than a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition, then Todd's got a point.

8:58: Todd says take a drink when Clinton says "shame" or Obama says "we agree." I say take a drink when someone says "mandate" (see above).

9:01: It's another sit-down debate. That usually makes them more reticent to launch attacks.

9:02: No opening statements? Williams launches right in with video of Clinton's schizophrenia strategy.

9:04: It's the Mark-Penn-Hillary right out of the gates. She became very disturbed over the last few days by fliers that have been circulating at least since the beginning of February.

9:05: Clinton again claims Obama's plan would leave people out. It's true; so would Clinton's plan.

9:05: Clinton denies any connection to the Somali-garb photo. Says she would fire anyone who plays that sort of politics. So she'll tell Stephanie Tubbs-Jones to take a hike?

9:07: Obama gets the first mention of "mandate" (and the second and third). Drink!

9:08: Have I mentioned that Obama is substantively right about this? The meta-point: Clinton's sent out plenty of anti-Obama fliers too; Obama hasn't been whingeing about it.

9:09: Clinton points out Obama includes a mandate for children. Is the ability to give consent that difficult a concept to grasp?

9:10: This is getting really nasty, really fast.

9:11: Obama says they agree, but doesn't say "we agree." Drink?

9:12: Like I said, average voters simply aren't equipped to sift through the minutiae of health care policy. The only relevant point is that Obama is holding his own, so the whole thing becomes a wash, and undermines Clinton's claims to be better-versed in policy.

9:13: Clinton goes back to Obama's "mandates for children" again. Honestly, adults can consent to things, children can't, it's not difficult.

9:14: Last point about health care: If you're going to propose a meaningful mandate, you have to propose an enforcement mechanism. Saying you have a mechanism (which Hillary does) is not the same as proposing a mechanism (which she doesn't).

9:16: Ah, onto NAFTA. They're both free-traders and they're going to lie their fucking heads off.

9:17: Awesome, Clinton whinges about the format, references a dumb SNL sketch. There's your kitchen-sink. A handful of boos, well-deserved.

9:18: Clinton claims she's always been an opponent of NAFTA. Um, right. She proposes a "trade timeout." What could be better for an ailing market?

9:20: Obama claims "the net costs of trade agreements can be devastating if they're not properly structured." The last qualifier is broad enough to make almost anything that comes before automatically true. But he's trying to pretend he's not a free-trader.

9:23: Russert confronts Clinton with her litany of pro-NAFTA remarks. She splutters, vows to renegotiate or pull out of NAFTA.

9:24: I'm obviously very biased. Does this look to anyone else like the most desperate effort ever? She can't decide whether to hate Russert, Williams, or Obama the most.

9:26: Russert asks Obama whether to opt out of NAFTA. Obama says they agree again. Drink!

9:27: Obama's really hedging hard on his past support of trade agreements. In the interest of balance and all that.

9:28: Russert's definitely going easier on Obama than Clinton. Much easier. Wow.

9:31: Clinton finally calms down and gives a good answer on the loss of jobs in upstate New York. Not good in the sense that she actually made any informative points, good in the sense that she hits the right keywords and has stopped looking like she's there for a streetfight.

9:33: Williams asks Obama about Clinton's comparison of Obama to Bush on foreign policy experience. Obama: I have better judgment than Clinton; I voted against the war. Kind of a softball — will she ratchet up the attacks?

9:36: Williams to Clinton: are you prepared to say that Obama is unqualified to be Commander-in-Chief? Clinton: Obama gave a good speech in 2002; there, there.

9:37: Wow, Clinton claims that "Obama threatened to bomb Pakistan." This is getting surreal. Incidentally, the subtext of her argument is that they have precisely the same issue-profile on foreign policy. Even if it were true, how is that a point in her favor?

9:39: Obama rightly points out that he did a lot more than give a speech; points out Clinton criticizes George Bush's judgment while trumpeting her own agreement with George Bush's judgment. Again, I can't look at this without bias, but this seems to be getting more embarrassing by the moment for Clinton.

9:41: Russert asks Obama whether we can make good on his pledge to withdraw from Iraq. He says yes we can.

9:42: Same question to Clinton; only Russert won't let her answer. He asks Clinton whether she would reserve the right to reinvade Iraq in the event of a disaster. She calls bullshit on Russert's Tomclancying. Good for Hillary.

9:45: The next Clinton attack: Obama hasn't held oversight hearings on the NATO commitment in Afghanistan. Obama: I became head of the oversight committee at the beginning of this campaign. That might not play well, but the fact is that any senator campaigning for president is going to be derelict as a senator.

9:47: Williams tries to cut to break, Clinton tries to cut in, Williams cuts her off and cuts to break.

9:49: First break. Maybe this just seems to be going fast and everybody seems to be agitated because I'm trying to watch and blog at the same time. On the other hand, apart from the gang-tackling the Republicans did on Mitt Romney in January, there hasn't been anything remotely like this in this campaign. Hillary is using every question to take a personal swipe at Obama. Will that win votes?

9:51: To be sure, Williams and Russert are doing their best to provoke a fight. To be further sure, nobody made Hillary trot out that stuttering sarcastic attack on "change."

9:54: Okay, the real problem with the kitchen-sink strategy is that it doesn't involve any themes that Clinton hasn't been hitting the whole campaign, she's just getting a lot nastier about them. But these are the very same attacks Obama has been practicing replying to for over a year, and he's gotten pretty good at it. So he comes off looking confident, she comes off looking like Ross Perot ("Can I finish? Can I finish?").

9:57: More economic bullshit from Clinton on interest rates. She is really, dangerously wrong about this.

10:00: Obama: "Clinton said in a previous debate that she voted for a bill, but hoped it wouldn't pass. Generally, when you hope a bill won't pass, you vote against it." Not exactly verbatim. Expect that to get replayed a lot.

10:02: Russert asks why Obama won't keep his word on public financing. Specifically references the McCain attack. Obama comes back pointing out McCain's own public finance waffling (McCain's, unlike Obama's, is probably illegal). Clinton is sketching out a note. I sense an attack coming. From a candidate financed by a rolling international financial crimewave.

10:04: Russert asks Clinton why she won't release her tax returns. Interestingly, Clinton for the first time floats the possibility of releasing her tax returns before becoming the nominee. She will "work towards releasing."

10:06: Just as I was about to point out how slanted Russert has been towards Obama, he tries to grill Obama on (unsolicited) support from Louis Farrakhan. And then tries to stick in the Jeremiah Wright shiv. And somehow brings Israel into it. This is disgraceful.

10:11: After Obama repeatedly repudiates Farrakhan and anti-Semitism, Clinton suggests Obama courts anti-Semitism. And there go the last dredges of her shame. She did just win both the VDARE and the Weekly Standard primary, so, congrats on that. (The subtext here is a Likudnik campaign to pretend Obama is an anti-Israel fifth columnist, based on the fact that he gets advice from — cue sinister music — Zbigniew Brzezi?ski.)

10:23: After Russert decides spreading innuendo about Obama's ties to the Nation of Islam is a good use of his time, there's a relatively pacific discussion of Russia and the succession from Putin. Neither of them knows the successor's name. It's Dmitry Medvedev.

10:26: Both are asked if they'd take back any decision. Clinton says she'd take back her Iraq vote. Yet it's still not a mistake. Obama says he should have stopped the Terri Schiavo circus. He should have.

10:28: Obama pre-empts Clinton and takes the high road: "I've been absolutely honored to be campaigning with Senator Clinton." Sure.

10:32: Clinton's last opportunity to show some class. Will she take it?

"It's been an honor to campaign with Barack Obama?" But, but….

10:34: No buts, she touts her own record. Reasonably decent way to go out, but anybody who watched this disaster needs a shower, stat.

Afterword: The defining moment of the night was the first one, Hillary Clinton citing Tina Fey to launch an attack on the press and the entire nominating process. It only got more petulant and off-putting from there. Give her credit for trying. But it failed, on pretty much every score. And there was the moment in which she insinuated that he's a covert anti-Semite. It's hard to see how this could have gone worse for her.

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