One of the benefits of the mashup forum is that voters can cut right to the candidate answers on the issues that interest them. They don't have to wade through opening statements or awkward moderator segues. I'm not going to stand in the way of that kind of speedy transfer of information. If you want color from inside the glass-wrapped, free-food palace where the debate took place, read this preview. Otherwise, here are a few observations:
Clinton calls out her challengers. In August at the Yearly Kos debate, both Barack Obama and John Edwards challenged Hillary Clinton for taking money from lobbyists and have pressed the case ever since. Clinton appears to have gotten tired of it. "I think it's a little inauthentic for people to say, 'Don't take money from lobbyists,' but it's OK to take it from their spouses, their children, their associates, and from people that work for the companies that employ them," she told Rose. "That is, you know, to me, kind of an artificial distinction." (To see campaign contributions by industry sector, click here.)
This is a spicier answer than the one Clinton gave a month ago when she defended lobbyists. Obama and Edwards have put lobbying reform at the center of their outsider campaigns, and Clinton is saying that it's a phony act.
As if to prove that she wasn't captive to the insurance companies, and that she could attack them as loudly as Edwards has, Clinton walloped them in previewing her coming health-care speech. "I intend to dramatically rein in the influence of the insurance companies," she said, "because frankly I think that they have worked to the detriment of our economy and our health-care system."
Moving on from Moveon. Several of the candidates were asked about the Moveon.org ad that ran this week in the New York Times questioning whether Gen. Petraeus would tell the truth in his congressional testimony. Most ducked. John Edwards, the vocal anti-war candidate, claimed he didn't know about the ad but said as a general matter, anyone speaking for the administration was likely not to be "open and straight."
Obama and Clinton didn't criticize Moveon, but they didn't criticize the general. They said Petraeus was just doing his duty but that the real focus of doubt and distrust should be President Bush.
For Obama, the answer was disappointing. In the foreign-relations committee hearing Tuesday, he said that Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were "doing the absolute best that you can given an extraordinarily difficult situation. And so I appreciate the work that both of you are doing." If he really believes that, then the Moveon.org ad represents just the kind of divisive calumny and old-style politics he constantly rails against. Obama has taken to telling audiences about his boldness recently (video)—how he is willing to say tough things even though they're politically risky. If he really believes what he said in the Senate hearing, then he missed a chance to be bold by criticizing Moveon. (The candidate who inched toward saying anything risky, as Obama defines it, was John Edwards, who reiterated his call for shared sacrifice.)
Only Mike Gravel answered the question the way Moveon members might like and in a way that, for the bombastic Gravel, was rather measured and which conservative critics won't be able to simply dismiss out of hand.
It's hard to break out. Before the forum, I interviewed a senior adviser to a challenger campaign who pointed out that in a competitive news environment, the only way a distant candidate can get coverage is by attacking the front-runners. That way, at least the long-shot candidate, who can't get coverage on his own, might get mentioned in his rivals' stories.
Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel do this all the time, but they're such long shots, it's not going to work. Chris Dodd has criticized his opponents in press releases and previous debates, but he didn't do it on Wednesday, perhaps because the forum kept the candidates from interacting.
Bill Richardson tried his hardest anyway to draw distinctions with the other candidates. He attacked Obama, Clinton, and Edwards for not pledging to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq forever. "I want an answer to that," he pleaded. "I can't get it in other debates, so I'm hoping that today—this will be a challenge to the other candidates, why and for how long will they keep troops behind?" Richardson sounded a little desperate, and when Bill Maher asked whether voters "can't take the truth and have to be lied to," Richardson defended them as if their innate wisdom would rescue him from obscurity. They take him seriously as a candidate, he explained, and don't listen to the media that want to relegate him to second or third place. As if to make Richardson's point, Rose then followed up by asking Richardson whether he was really running to be vice president rather than president.
The best question. Press critics swarm after every debate with a list of the zingers and truth-exposing questions they would ask if only they had the chance. They assume that merely asking the question will get the desired answer. Bill Maher asked a sensible right-between-the-eyes question of Hillary Clinton about her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq: "Sen. Clinton, all the senators here, except Sen. Obama, voted for the Iraq resolution in 2002, saying that their decision was based on intelligence that they believed to be accurate at the time. In other words, George Bush fooled you. Why should Americans vote for someone who can be fooled by George Bush?" This was a great question, and Sen. Clinton's answer was nearly identical to the one she has given so many times before in discussing her Iraq vote. Sometimes a great question doesn't get you any closer to a deeper answer.