Debate #20: The Clinton Potemkin Village

Tonight was debate #20 for the Democratic Presidential contenders. I think I’ve caught all but two, most of them live and in real-time (either online or television).

Last summer, when I was watching the debates, I was impressed by how much stronger Senator Clinton was than every other candidate on the stage, including the one I support — Senator Obama.

It’s been interesting to watch the last three one-on-one debates. From my vantage point (admittedly as a partisan), Senator Clinton now has no real, substantive advantage in the debates, and one could make a very plausible argument that Obama easily bested her tonight and in the last debate. I thought she looked shrill, defensive, and, well, not very ready to be President throughout much of it.

One glaring moment for me: her answer on the very interesting question from Russert about the next Russian President. For all of her claims to be so vastly superior on foreign affairs and ready "from day one" — well, it was a very shallow and unperceptive answer. It was clever of Russert not to say Medvedev’s name, and to see if she knew it.

The other thing that I noticed was Obama’s handling of the Farrakhan question from Russert. It’s interesting, much of the reaction I’ve read tonight is about Russert’s supposedly tougher questioning of Clinton than Obama, with some buying into the Clinton campaign meme that the press is tougher on her. I defy anyone to find a triple-entendre race-and-religion-baiting question ("Are your friends really all black, Muslim anti-semites, Mr Obama?") like this one asked of Senator Clinton.

I thought Obama handled the question well (someone on the telly said he "fumbled" the moment — wha??). Clinton tried to pile on with a pretty despicable Tracy Flick-style move, saying Obama should not only have denounced" Farrakham but "rejected" him, and Obama deftly said, ok, I reject and denounce him if the words really are so different. Clinton looked pretty pathetic.

Finally, I think the format of the last three debates– with the opportunity for more long-form answers, real thinking on one’s feet, and a corresponding reduction in reliance on simple sound-bit barbs — has been informative. What they last have revealed to me is something I suspected for a while — that Senator Clinton’s claim to vastly superior experience and to being more substantive is a bit hollow. People keep talking about how substantive and smart she is, and to be honest, it hasn’t really shone through in any of the recent debates, where she hasn’t been able to rely as much on the canned quip.

And without the hook of steady debate performances, there aren’t many substantive accomplishments she can point to in her Senate career. So I continue to wonder, at this point, where’s the beef.