A few debate thoughts

Hillary Clinton did best, but front-runner Barack Obama held his own -- and therefore won. Plus: Should Clinton withdraw if her poll numbers drop in Ohio and Texas?

Published February 22, 2008 2:15PM (EST)

I did debate reaction on MSNBC with Dan Abrams, Peter Beinart and Julie Roginsky; I thought Clinton won on points, but by the conventional wisdom, in which the front-runner wins unless he or she clearly loses, Obama won by holding his own. I have to say I cringed at the "change you can Xerox" line, because it smacked of having been fabricated by someone else, and it was also so ... 20th century. Who xeroxes anymore in our paperless offices? Plus, she got booed. But it could be the sound bite that outlasts the boos; we'll see. It's leading many TV and wire stories about the debate.

Abrams, Beinart and Roginsky thought Clinton should have been more negative; Beinart even suggested she should have hit Michelle Obama for her controversial remarks on not being proud of America, as an adult, until the recent primary season. Oy, what a bad idea. Michelle Obama may well be dogged by those remarks through November, if her husband is the nominee, but it shouldn't be by Hillary Clinton. It's a toxic line of argument in a Democratic primary; empty, invidious posturing about patriotism is for the other party.

Overall it seemed like Clinton rejected the arguments of people in her camp to go negative. Call me namby-pamby, but I think she did the right thing. I thought Clinton was best in the first half of the debate (and then again with her extraordinarily moving conclusion), speaking with real passion about rethinking the idiotic border fence (that she and Obama voted for) and opposing INS raids on employers, while letting Campbell Brown hit Obama for flip-flopping on normalizing relations with Cuba. I also thought she handled their small but serious differences on healthcare the best, with her shout-out to John Edwards for his (convincing, in my opinion) critique of Obama's plan over its lack of a mandate.

Obama did several things well: He turned back her criticism of his soaring rhetoric by accusing her of attacking not him, but his supporters, as "delusional." He was unusually concise -- he can be too long-winded on this point -- that the differences between them are not about policy, but his capacity to bring people together to make the change they both support. When he acknowledged his superior speech-making abilities, though, he seemed a little arrogant, and that's something he's got to watch; it wasn't as bad as "You're likable enough" but it made me shake my head.

Later on MSNBC Jonathan Alter and the others with Chris Matthews thought Clinton's classy closing statement seemed "valedictory," and Alter suggested it could mean she'd consider dropping out if the poll numbers went south in Texas and Ohio. I don't see her doing that and I don't think she should (if she's blown out in both states, I'll talk about her valedictory then). I know it's not fashionable to admit it, but I think the Democrats are well-served by this long dance, as long as the two candidates don't bloody one another. They've both become better debaters, and better candidates, in the last four months. Let the best person win.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections