Thursday, February 21, 2008

Austin, We Have Lift-Off

Those who watched only the first few minutes of the Austin debate heard Hillary Clinton begin by invoking two powerful names for Democrats in Texas, who both not coincidentally were women: Barbara Jordan (whose birthday it was) and Ann Richards. She made a nice, long and fairly abstract pitch for her candidacy.

Then Barack Obama talked not about symbols of the party, but about the problems of voters today, in direct and not abstract terms. And on the symbology front, he quoted Barbara Jordan, after saying she was a hero to him (thus reminding us that she was black as well as female.) Advantage Obama.

Those who sat through the detailed answers on health care learned that both candidates could give detailed answers on health care. They also heard Obama say again that the difference is not so much in their ideas but in how they propose to make them real--in his case, by inviting the American public into the debate (something that Hillary did not do in her attempt to enact universal health care in 1993) and by being a Washington outsider not beholden to the past or to lobbyists.

Texans looking for keys to let them know one candidate or another knew the Texas issues that concerned them got something from both. A question invited Hillary to say why Obama is not ready to be commander in chief, an implication she is making on the campaign trail. She backed off, and talked a lot about how she would make a good one. Hillary seemed to talk a lot about everything. I'd be interested in seeing figures on how much time she got to talk versus Obama's time. Obama's answer to the commander in chief question was short and to the point: if I didn't think I was ready, I wouldn't run. My first job is to keep America safe. (to paraphrase.) Nothing he hasn't said before, but direct and to the point.

For whoever was watching just short of an hour into this, Obama deftly destroyed Hillary's last gasp tactic in her speeches as recently as today: her repeated line "Let's get real." Obama said that it implied that "the people who've been voting for me or are involved in my campaign are somehow delusional. The twenty million people who have paid attention to 19 debates, and the editorial boards all across the country, at the newspapers who have given me endorsements, including every major newspaper here in the state of Texas, the thinking is they're somehow being duped, that eventually they're going to see the reality of things. Well, I think they perceive reality of what's going on in Washington very clearly. And what they see is that if we don't bring the country together, stop the endless bickering, actually focus on solutions, and reduce the special interests that have dominated Washington, that we will not get anything done. And the reason that this campaign has done so well is because people understand it is not just a matter of people putting forth policy positions--Senator Clinton and I share a lot of policy positions--but if we can't inspire the American people to get involved in their government, and if we can't inspire them to go beyond the racial divisions, and the religious divisions and the regional divisons that have plagued our politics for too long, then we will see the kind of gridlock and non-performance in Washington that is resulting in families suffering in very real ways--I'm running for President to start doing something about that suffering, and so are the people who are behind my campaign."

Now let's just look at this statement. He used Hillary's two latest buzzwords against her "let's get real" and "solutions." He reaffirmed his strength: "inspiration." And he succinctly made his case for why he should be President. It was a complete moment, and as Howard Fineman said on MSNBC, at that point the debate was over. Obama had won it completely.

His strategy throughout seemed to be to hone in on his rationale, as he did there, and to confront Hillary's attacks on him--that was the subtext of what he said about health care, taking time to show that her attack--as through direct mail in Wisconsin--saying that he's arbitrarily leaving people out of his plan, is false. He also used a question to directly confront the charge that he's all talk and no action, with specific instances of action. Hillary gave him an opening for one, by mentioning the scandal of medical care at Walter Reed for returning soldiers--Obama had taken the lead on the congressional response.

A question on the plagarism charge gave Obama the opportunity to make it sound as ridiculous as it is. Hillary, perhaps a bit sandbagged into affirming the charge her campaign made, repeated that a candidate's words should be his own, and then gave the obviously pre-prepared zinger, "It's not hope you can believe in, it's hope you can xerox." The crowd booed. Instead of quoting instances where Hillary had used the words of others, Obama let the boos handle it for him, and said this is the kind of politics we want to leave behind.

Then came the closing responses to the question of what crisis in their lives each had overcome had meant the most, or something like that. Obama said he looked at the arc of his life and he'd learned in his youth to take responsibility for his actions. (It may take awhile, but think of the implications for the Clinton White House.) Hillary gave what was for her a passionate reply. She said everybody knew about her crises. Then the rest of her answer was variously interpreted as a kind of admission that she's not going to win. (She also seemed to indicate earlier that there won't be a superdelegate fight to the bitter end--although I wouldn't over-interpret what she said.) Then she said that her travails pale in comparison to some wounded soldiers she met, one with his face blown off.

I had a different response to this than the commentators on TV and on the Internet. To me it was smarmy, a bit of noblesse oblige, and the sentimental cliche of there but for the grace of God go I. Obama referred to things he actually went through, and how they relate to his actions and beliefs now. If I'm a Texas voter, I think I'm moved more by somebody who was raised by a single mom, made some mistakes and then devoted his life to true public service, than I am by a wealthy lady who pities wounded soldiers, especially as they suffered those wounds in a war she voted to authorize.

But it seems everybody else thought it was so sincere and emotional. At least until, in a really cruel irony, it turns out she stole both the ideas and the wording of what she said. Some of it from her husband, which puts it on the same level as what she called Obama's candidacy into question over--the use of a few sentences suggested by a friend and co-chair of his campaign. But some of it--and this is why I thought when I heard it that I'd heard it before--from John Edwards. In a debate (more than one really.) The most recent of which was last month.

This actually comes closer to the definition of plagarism--using someone elses' words without acknowlegement and without their permission. Unless John Edwards is collaborating with her in secret.

(And now, there's a charge that she wasn't even there to witness the moment she described.)

C.W. commentators gave the debate to Hillary on points but because she didn't do damage, Obama wins. Nah. It was worse than that for her. He made a case for his candidacy, and destroyed her negative charges against him. She talked a lot.

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