Kind Words, but No Winner

In their biggest debate yet, Clinton was more commanding, Obama was more inspirational, and both were polite.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

How nice. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama met for their final debate before Super Tuesday and opened with sweet ovations to each other, their party, and the change that will come to politics when either of them is elected president. They kept it up for 90 minutes. When it appeared they might clash, they both backed away. They couldn’t have been sweeter. Admit it. You switched over to Lost.

That’s a shame, because it was a substantive debate, perhaps the most substantive so far. If you’re too impatient to read the rest of this piece and want to know the winner, I can’t help you. For the first half of the debate, Clinton was at her best talking about the details of health care and immigration. Clinton is her message: thorough, competent, and commanding. She even had a big one-liner the crowd loved. “It took one Clinton to clean up after a Bush,” she said when asked about the potential Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton handoff of the White House, “and it may take a Clinton to clean up after a second Bush.”

Obama’s message is inspiration, but he wasn’t terribly inspirational for most of the early part of the debate. If a voter was looking to feel the Obama magic she’d been hearing about, she didn’t get it. That isn’t to say he was a mess. For those voters who are already inspired by Obama and merely needed to be convinced that he could hold his own on policy issues, he was commanding enough to close the deal.

In the last debate in South Carolina, both candidates came spring-loaded to attack each other. This time, they both decided to do the opposite, perhaps because so many people from so many diverse Super Tuesday states were watching. The candidates were anxious to simply get their message across in as appealing a way as possible for voters who might really be tuning in for the first time. They didn’t want to risk looking petty or shrill with such a large and impressionable audience. Also, both campaigns think they’ve picked the right final strategy. Clinton is ahead in the polls; she doesn’t need to tear down Obama. Obama thinks he has the momentum after his win in South Carolina and the big Kennedy endorsements and doesn’t need to go on the offensive. Plus, they can still do the mean stuff in phone calls and mailers and through surrogates.

The candidates spent a lot of time sparring over details, but the specifics of their disagreements were not enormous. Ultimately, the broader issues that have ruled the race about judgment and their approach to governing are what re-emerged. When discussing health care, Obama essentially argued that only he has the ability to create enough public momentum to actually bring about universal coverage for all Americans. Clinton’s case was that she has more determination and that’s what will be needed to do the hard business of passing health-care reform.

The two were so in sync they even stumbled together. During an exchange about immigration, they both returned to the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, a topic that has tripped them up in the past. Once again, they both weren’t very clear.

If Clinton started strong, it was Obama who closed better. The turn came when both candidates were asked about Iraq. Obama perfectly articulated why he could better take on Republicans. “The question is, can we make an argument that this was a conceptually flawed mission from the start, and that we need better judgment … and that is an argument that I think we are going to have a easier time making if they can’t turn around and say, ‘but hold on a second; you supported this.’ ” Obama was then aided by Clinton, who didn’t defend her Iraq vote well. Her answer was fine, but it lacked the clarity and definitive snap of his. It didn’t sound like the commanding woman of the first part of the debate.

The Iraq answer brought Obama back to life, after he’d faded into the background during the middle of the debate. In one of his final answers, he offered his most inspirational rhetoric about changing Washington. He started smiling more, as if he knew he was coasting into the finish with speed. His last act of the debate was his most gallant. After days of being picked at about whether he snubbed Clinton during the State of the Union address by not acknowledging her, he stood and held Clinton’s chair as they left the stage. (That’s something John Kennedy, the man to whom it is now fashionable to compare him to, would have done.) Before leaving the stage, the two embraced, smiled, and had a close conversation with their faces almost touching. For a second, it appeared they might exchange an Eskimo kiss.