Most Improved Debater

In what may be the final debate, Obama shows how he’s grown.

In the first Democratic primary debate 10 months ago, Hillary Clinton didn’t have to charge that Barack Obama wasn’t ready to be president on Day One. He did the work for her. He was halting, mumbling, and tentative. The only confidence he instilled was in Clinton. Nineteen debates later, he’s improved so much that if he’s not ready to be president on Day One, you could imagine he might get there after a little study. At what may be the last debate of the Democratic primary, Obama was commanding, at ease, and magnanimous. Clinton needed him to stumble, and he didn’t. He won the night.

How a candidate performs in a debate tells us only a little about how he or she would perform as president, but that’s not the way Clinton aides told us we should view these debates. During the tough February slog, while Clinton was losing electoral contests to Obama, her aides promised that in one-on-one sessions, voters would see how she towered over her puny rival. It didn’t happen. Clinton didn’t have a bad evening in Cleveland on Tuesday night; it’s just that she didn’t scratch Obama, and the moderators didn’t much, either.

In the first 16 minutes, Obama and Clinton had another heated exchange about their health-care plans. Obama held his own, as he had the week before in Austin. To damage him, Clinton  needed to either puncture his arguments or make him look weak on the issue. She did neither.

Clinton’s goal for the evening was to show that she was a fighter. She returned repeatedly to the theme, explaining why her tough spirit was necessary for the hard business of governing. She then proved how tough she was answering tough questioning by the moderators, who were harder on her than they were on Obama. Clinton mostly hit the right tone, a hard thing for a female candidate to do at such length without bruising the sensitivities of unreconstructed viewers. But in a sign of how Obama has improved, he saw that Clinton was pitching herself as a fighter and used it against her. “She mentioned that she is a fighter on health care,” he said. “The way she approached it back in ‘93, I think, was wrong, in part because she had the view that what’s required is simply to fight. And Sen. Clinton ended up fighting not just the insurance companies and the drug companies, but also members of her own party.”

Obama was an elusive target all night, diffusing each of Clinton’s attempts to make pointed contrasts. When she repeated her claim about the limited power of his oratory, Obama went beyond his standard retort that words are important because they can inspire, and he added his own anti-rhetoric riff. He described talking with four Ohio women who struggle to find adequate health care and got indignant on their behalf. “I am not interested in talk,” he said, promising to enact policies that will help them. “I am not interested in speeches.” The answer touched a lot of bases. He pandered to the local crowd by talking about some of their own, showed his empathy for women, a group he consistently loses to Clinton, and demonstrated he would fight for regular folk on issues that matter to them, something he wants to show low-income voters who have preferred his opponent in some contests.

Clinton compared Obama to George Bush when arguing that he lacked experience. Obama parried that if inexperience was the obvious deficiency she now says it is, why had Clinton “facilitated and enabled” the inexperienced Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. At the end of the debate, when Clinton admitted that she would like to take back her 2002 vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq, it further undermined her argument about her experience.

When Obama couldn’t flip an answer back on his opponent, he just gave in. Asked about Louis Farrakhan’s support, Obama said that he had denounced Farrakhan and his anti-Semitic views in the past, but he wouldn’t answer Tim Russert’s question about whether he would renounce Farrakhan’s endorsement now. Clinton tried to make something of the distinction, pointing out that when an anti-Semitic group supported her 2000 campaign, she renounced it. Obama gave in. “If the word reject Sen. Clinton feels is stronger than the word denounce, then I’m happy to concede the point,” he said. “I would reject and denounce.”

Both candidates had bad moments. When Obama was asked whether he would honor his pledge to take public financing in the general election, he returned to the mumbling stumbler of the early debates. He has campaigned as a reformer and a new kind of politician who doesn’t play games, but he didn’t demonstrate that in his duck-and-dodge answer. (Fortunately for Obama, his potential Republican opponent John McCain is having his own problems on this front.)

When Obama was asked about a vote he would like to retract, he cited his inaction during the Congressional debate over ending life support for Terry Schiavo. He said he should have stood on the floor and tried to stop intervention into her care. “Inaction,” he said, “can be as costly as action.” Those who criticize Obama for waiting 11 months after coming to the Senate to speak out against the Iraq war would agree with the senator about the cost of inaction. Were Clinton not so compromised on the issue of Iraq, she could have perhaps turned Obama’s words against him to challenge his claims to superior leadership on the issue.

Clinton’s low moment came when she referred to a Saturday Night Live sketch when complaining that she always got the first questions at debates. The objection didn’t make sense on its face—often candidates want the first whack at a question. It also wasn’t such an act of media bias that it fit with the sketch, which lampooned the press for its Obama infatuation. If you hadn’t seen the show, Clinton’s repeating a line from it—”Maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow”—must have seemed just bewildering. (She may yet benefit, though, as cable networks replay the skit in trying to explain what she meant.)

Clinton had a nearly impossible task for the evening as she tried to slow Obama’s momentum. He’s now tied with her in Texas polls and is close to erasing her lead in Ohio surveys. There’s just a week left before the two primaries in those states that will determine whether Clinton survives, and she still hasn’t found an effective line of attack. At times she seemed weary as she pressed her familiar case about Obama’s lack of experience, vulnerability to Republican attacks, and her better credentials. She’s been making those claims for months, and voters have nevertheless moved away from her. At one point, Clinton talked about how she barely had time to sleep, and you could believe it. Watching her fight through 90 minutes trying to make some kind of dent against the vastly improved Obama made you want to offer her a pillow.