Clinton Wins, but Barely
She looked competent. He looked tired.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama certainly did their homework before the 21st Democratic debate. Hillary Clinton knew what had been printed in the bulletin at Obama's church, and Obama knew the details of Bill Clinton's pardons. As Sen. Obama defended himself against elitism charges, he was clever enough to sneak in a reference to Hillary Clinton's famous 1992 line about how she didn't much bake cookies. This to prove that Yale-educated lawyers have just as much out-of-touch snob baggage as Harvard-educated lawyers do. Neither candidate had read up on the D.C. gun ban before the Supreme Court—because that way, they wouldn't have to take a stand on it? And they didn't want to get too specific about Social Security reforms, but on the details of the other's political vulnerabilities, they were quick like bunnies.
Good thing, too, because the first 40 minutes of the debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia were all about politics. The ABC News mailbox has probably already melted from angry e-mails about the questions' tit-for-tat focus. They concerned the gaffes and track-backs that we political elites obsess over but that inflame people who have ready access to e-mail and demand the candidates talk about substance.
Obama was asked about his allegiance to the flag, and Hillary Clinton was asked about her Bosnia-sniper fantasy. In response, the candidates exhausted themselves with passive-aggressive bickering, and afterward only barely graduated to exchanging the usual platitudes. Both made cast-iron pledges about never raising taxes and refusing to waiver from their campaign pledges on Iraq that we should all hope they don't mean if for no other reason than that kind of rigidity is not what we want in a president. In the Oliver Stone movie of the debate, the bronze statues of the country's founders in the lobby of the theater would be visibly weeping.
Much of the hardest sledding for Obama came during the period where the questioners and Sen. Clinton asked him to account for his associations with his former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and a former Weatherman, William Ayers. His answers seemed defensive and not very solid. It's hard to be full of hope when you're justifying your relationship—however tenuous—to domestic terrorists. In the exchanges, Obama also appeared to put forward a few fibs. He said his handwriting wasn't on a questionnaire about gun control when it was, and he said his campaign pushed the issue of Clinton's Bosnia fantasy only after reporters raised it. Not true. Obama also added to his penchant for troubling moral equivalencies when he equated associating with Ayers to talking with one of his conservative Senate colleagues, Tom Coburn, who once suggested giving the death penalty to abortion doctors. Not a good parallel.
Wait, though. I will now adjust my view of Obama's rough start to account for the personal weather system under which he apparently operates. Many things that looked like they would punish him during this campaign have not. Furthermore, it appears that he has made it through the initial aftermath of his ungainly remarks about Pennsylvania small-town folk without a slip in the polls. There was nothing tonight that had the potential to wound like those remarks did, so Obama may yet not be damaged as much as a normal candidate ought. On the other hand, the sheer number of questions may make the next round of primary voters wonder about Obama's foundation. Or they might wonder how he could, with a straight face, decry Hillary Clinton for taking snippets of his remarks out of context and blowing them up, when he has done the same so expertly and so frequently with John McCain's claim about America's 100-year commitment to Iraq.
If Obama's numbers hold, what might have saved him tonight? Every time the candidate was presented with a tough political question, he turned the question into proof of what he's running against: game-playing and politics as usual. He got two rounds of applause, and because I'd scooted my chair up right next to the television, I could hear viewers across the land saying "amen," too.
Early in the evening, the excuse for the questions about screw-ups was that they were framed in terms of how these liabilities might play out in the general election. In their answers, Clinton and Obama demonstrated their likely general-election techniques against McCain. Clinton kept after Obama, landing punches, glancing or not, while Obama deflected, always trying to move to the higher ground.
It's an upside for Obama that Hillary Clinton isn't especially attractive when she's on the attack. When she's trying to raise troubling questions over his associations without ever really saying what she means, she doesn't look presidential. More like a little shifty. Given how little voters trust her, this could matter.
Clinton was at her best in the second 45 minutes of the debate, when the e-mailers got their wish and the examination ended of the friends listed on Obama's Facebook page. Obama did well enough, but Clinton had sharper, more confident answers on the economy and Iran (although her idea of a new security umbrella to protect a new set of countries in the Middle East seemed alarming). That will help her if enough undecided voters resisted the urge to change the channel. But it's not so much that Clinton was thoroughly dazzling. She was just far better than the candidate who has appeared via sounds bites on the evening news in the 50 days since the last debate. Voters who consider the debates important have by overwhelming margins voted for Clinton in previous contests, because she comes across as competent in these settings. She may have reminded voters who once liked her, but then moved away, why they liked her in the first place.
Asked at the start of the debate if they would take up Mario Cuomo's unification suggestion—that they fight out the remaining contests but then promise to join forces as one ticket in the end—both candidates said it was too early to talk of such an arrangement. Given the glowing ill will beneath the surface tonight, it seems obvious that they're going to have to bicker and fight like a divorced couple before they can ever get married.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
Photographs of: Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Slate home page by Jae C. Hong/Pool/Getty Images; Clinton on Slate's home page by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images; Clinton and Obama on article page by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images.