Decoding the Debate

Take a deep breath—all of the Democratic debates are over; 20 up, 20 down, and assuming there aren’t any more debates going forward, that’s the last time we’ll see Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the same room for a while. Strangely, that’s both a relief and a disappointment. Outside of actual primaries, no other event offered more potential for narrative-changing storylines. But debates also invited us media folk to inject too much punditry into the news cycle about moments the general public doesn’t actually care about.

Important distinctions were voiced at Tuesday’s debate, but not all of them were immediately familiar. With all of the arguing over NAFTA , leaked photographs , and media bias , who has the time to follow the endorsements from the Nation of Islam? Here’s a summary and some recommended reading on a few topics that are likely to carry the post-debate news agenda:

Louis Farrakhan: Earlier this week, the leader of the Nation of Islam all but endorsed Obama. But it’s an endorsement no candidate wanted—Farrakhan has insulted Judaism and crafted CIA conspiracy theories in the past. The endorsement is especially messy for Obama, who has long struggled to convince the Jewish community that he’s a supporter of Israel. That’s not to mention the complications it could bring by furthering rumors that Obama is a Muslim. Obama has long said he does not approve of Farrkhan’s comments and reiterated that he did not solicit his endorsement at the debate. Also of note: Obama’s church leader, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, once said Farrakhan “epitomized greatness.” This gets worse for Obama with every extra second of airtime. He can’t denounce—or reject—Farrakhan enough. Recommended reading: Belief Net , PBS , Southern Poverty Law Center .

Dimitry Medvedev: The 42-year-old Russian deputy prime minister will almost surely become the country’s president this weekend, but it may not mean much. Vladimir Putin is stepping down from the presidency but assuming the role of prime minister, and will probably have the same amount of power as he did when he was president. There are some hints that Medvedev could be friendlier to democracy than Putin, but it’s still unclear how their power-sharing dynamic will operate. Clinton was asked to name Russia’s soon-to-be premier at the debate, and managed a garbled version of Medvedev that sounded like she had taken one too many shots of former-Soviet vodka with John McCain . But we doubt Obama could have done much better—he looked to her as the question was asked, suggesting he wanted her to take the lead. As attention oscillates between Russia and China in foreign policy circles, both candidates’ lack of knowledge was unimpressive, to say the least. Fun fact: Medvedev loves Black Sabbath . Maybe he’ll invite Ozzy to the Kremlin. Recommended reading: Economist , Financial Times , International Herald Tribune , Slate .

Money, money, money: Both candidates got snagged by fiscal transparency during the debate. First, Tim Russert checked in on Obama’s original pledge that he’d take public funds if his opponent did. John McCain has suggested he might take public financing, which has forced Obama to show his hand—and it’s a different one than it used to be. Obama wouldn’t say whether he was willing to commit to public funds at the debate, saying he’d sit down with McCain and hash out something fair to both of them. Russert also returned to another favorite subject—Clinton family transparency. After Hillary Clinton admitted she loaned herself $5 million, there were calls for her to make her and Bill’s tax returns public, so voters could see where the money came from. Hillary said she’ll do it—just not any time soon. Both candidates wriggled out of Russert’s questions, but not before both issues’ profiles were raised another notch. Recommended reading: New York Times , Trailhead , Telegraph .