The Great Debaters

Last week, Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle ( RIP ) sent the Obama campaign a letter throwing down the gauntlet and challenging Barack Obama to a debate a week—a sort of Lincoln-Douglas series that would either captivate America or bore it to death. Obama agreed to attend two debates between now and March 4, one in Texas and one in Cleveland, Ohio, but said that any more would be overkill.

Now Clinton has upped the ante. Today she begins airing a new ad in Wisconsin—Obama-land, by all accounts—challenging him to debate her in Milwaukee.

The spot doesn’t quite “go negative.” But it sure does contain fighting words: “Maybe he’d prefer to give speeches than to have to answer questions.” It also has all the traditional language of a negative ad, with side-by-side pictures, a smarmy narrator, and a Baroque quartet. Still, it falls far short of trash talk.  

As we’ve said before, having more debates benefits Clinton: It gets Obama off the trail, where he flourishes, and onto the stage, where she does. For a while, it seemed as if Clinton might reject the NBC-hosted Cleveland debate in light of MSNBC anchor David Shuster’s “pimped out” comments—an odd move, given that she has been calling for more debates. But today Clinton confirmed that she would be attending. As Ben Smith puts it , her campaign has apparently decided it’s “getting more mileage out of the debate theme than out of the war with MSNBC.”

Indeed. On a conference call at this very moment, Howard Wolfson is arguing that Obama “owes it to the people of Wisconsin” to debate Clinton in their state, adding that Obama is “hiding from the people of Wisconsin.” This claim—even for campaign spin—is patently absurd. This week, Obama will have held eight events in Wisconsin. Clinton has held zero and has none scheduled. (Chelsea and Bill are making stops, however.) Furthermore, every debate is a national event. There’s nothing stopping residents of Wisconsin from watching the Texas and Ohio debates.  

Obama’s decision to accept two debates and reject the rest walks the line between cooperation and independence; he appears accommodating, but not overly so. Spokesman Tommy Vietor dismissed the latest Clinton spot as a “political stunt to get headlines.” “Look, they’ve debated 18 times in this primary,” he said. “They’re going to debate two additional times. … Sen. Obama believes debates are important. That’s why we’re doing 20 of them total.”

To waste so much breath on the “debate debate” seems silly, but it’s the sort of micro-battle that gets attention in a tight race. And with Obama slated to take 10 states (and territories) in a row, Clinton needs the free media. But why settle for that, when you can get free media about the free media ?