James Forsyth

The Democratic debate

The Democratic debate
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I’m a little late to the party here as I was in the spin room listening to the surrogates for the Republican candidates. So, I’ll come back to the foreign policy section after the debate.

The first thing to notice is that John Edwards is riding to Obama’s defence as Hillary tries to attack him. Edwards is depicting Clinton as the candidate of the status quo. Edwards’s attack was brutal. Hillary is firing back now. If she can’t rebut this charge, then it is over for her.

Bill Richardson starts with a joke, “I’ve been in hostage negotiations that were more civil than this.” He then goes on to ask what’s wrong with experience and rattles through his record.

Charles Gibson, the excellent moderator, then asks them how they reconcile their opposition to the surge to the success that it has had in dampening down the violence in Iraq. Hillary responds by saying that the Iraqis aren’t doing what they need to do to fix their country and so the American forces should come home. She doesn’t, though, address what would happen next. Richardson argues that you can’t have change until you end the war and calls the surge ‘a massive failure’. Obama tries to zoom out and says that given the quality of the US forces sending more of them was always going to reduce the violence. Edwards pledges to get the troops out within 10 months.

Richardson, who is betting his candidacy on being the most anti-war candidate, reemphasises his desire to end the war yesterday. Hillary responds with an answer stressing just how much planning needs to go into the pull out; props to her for remaining a grown-up on this even as her campaign flounders.

Hillary gets asked about what her take is on the fact that people think she’s more experienced but Obama is more likeable. She responds, cutely, that “it hurts my feeling” and “I’m not that bad am I?” You have to admire the way that she isn’t withering under fire.

Bill Richardson keeps coming back to his experience. He is obviously determined to come across as the adult on the stage as the big three, who are miles ahead of him in the polls, scrap it out.

Edwards indulges in contrast with both Clinton and Obama by arguing that for him the fight for change is personal to him not academic (Obama) or political (Clinton). But he then gtes to Obama’s back as the moderator questions Obama on how meaningful his ethics reform legislation is. Indeed, the story of the night in both debates is how candidates have taken on the role as attack dogs for their opponents—Thompson on Romney to McCain's benefit, Edwards on Clinton to Obama's advantage.

Hillary is getting increasingly frustrated and launches into a defence of the Clinton administration's record—jabbing her arm and saying with a gleeful look “we raised taxes on corporation, raised taxes on the wealthy”. If she’s the nominee, the Republicans will use that clip as an attack ad time and time again.

Edwards is turning in one of his strong emotive performances; you can see why he was such a successful trial lawyer. Journalists cringe at Edwards’s constant repetition of his personal story but to voters who don’t listen to him every day it can be compelling,

Hillary tries to steer the debate back tom pocketbook issues by saying that “the economy is slipping into recession.” Edwards then launches into a moving—or hokey, depending on your point of view—speech about the plight of homeless veterans. Obama, cleverly, pivots to talk about the need for a middle class tax cut. New Hampshire is a tax-averse state and Obama needs the votes of independents and disillusioned Republicans if he is to beat Hillary here.

The candidates are asked what they would take back from the various debates. Bill Richardson rescinds his choice of a favourite Supreme Court Justice saying, to gales of laughter in the press room, that if he’d know Justice White was against civil rights and Roe versus Wade he wouldn’t have picked him. Edwards apologises for teasing Hillary about her jacket. While both Clinton and Obama give waffle-filled answers about the differences between Democrats and Republicans. 

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is Political Editor of the Spectator. He is also a columnist in The Sun.

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