Just how bad was Barack Obama's debate performance last night? Not as bad as Britney Spears' song-and-dance routine at the MTV Awards. Not as bad as Bill Buckner's legendary error during the '86 World Series. Not as bad as Bob Dylan's music during his God phase. Not as bad as John Travolta's Scientology cinema experiment in Battlefield Earth. Not as bad as Mike Dukakis' fateful ride in a military tank.
In other words, Obama could have done worse. Neverthless, if he still harbors any hopes of driving Hillary Clinton from the Democratic race by scoring an upset victory in Pennsylvania, he might be wise to get real. It's hard to imagine that he won over the working-class, culturally-conservative Democrats who constitute the swing vote; if anything, his performance during the first 45 minutes of the debate may well have cemented their suspicions.
Obama's devotees will no doubt complain today that the ABC News inquisitors were grossly unfair, that they focused their fire on Obama while leaving Hillary Clinton relatively unscathed, and that they asked too many dirtball questions at Obama's expense. (George Stephanopoulos to Obama: "Do you think Rev. Wright loves America as much as you do?") Whatever. Whining about the media is the last resort of losers. The bottom line is that Obama didn't successfully adapt to the environment. For instance:
1. He muffed his latest explanation of his recent remarks on small-town America. He said last night: "The point I was making (last week at a private San Francisco fundraiser) was that when people feel like Washington's not listening to them, when they're promised year after year, decade after decade, that their economic situation is going to change, and it doesn't, then politically they end up focusing on those things that are constant, like religion. They end up feeling 'This is a place where I can find some refuge. This is something that I can count on.'" (italics mine)
I doubt that churchgoing small-towners will be satisified with that. They worship for affirmative spiritual reasons - "in good times and in bad times," as Clinton quickly pointed out last night. They don't think "politically" about the importance of worship. And, most importantly, they don't merely "end up" worshipping.
Obama defenders might dismiss all this as quibbles over wording. But, as Obama himself frequently points out, "words matter." And his latest words on the matter aren't likely to charm the voters whom he needs to break through in Pennsylvania.
Nor did he ever try to turn the tables, and offer a policy critique of the '90s, when the Bill Clinton administration fought for free-trade deals that hastened exoduc of jobs in those same communities. At one point in the debate, Hillary gave him an enormous opening when she lauded her husband's record ("an economy that lifted everybody up at the same time"). He failed to take it. Hillary gave him another opening when she lauded the importance of "good union jobs where people get a good wage." It's a matter of record that unions lost clout during the Clinton era, in part because her husband, even when he had a Democratic Congress, didn't push hard for legislation that would have curbed union-busting. But Obama didn't point this out, either.
2. He was only semi-coherent while discussing his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. When asked to explain why in 2007 he had disinvited Wright to his announcement of candidacy, he said: "This was (because of) a set of remarks that had been quoted in Rolling Stone Magazine and we looked at them and I thought that they would be a distraction since he had just put them forward...They were not of the sort that we saw that offended so many Americans. And that's why I specifically said that these comments were objectionable; they're not comments that I believe in."
Huh? I thought this guy was supposed to have a golden tounge. He sounded rattled, fatigued, or both.
Clinton then took the opportunity to remind those culturally-conservative Pennsylvanians that Wright had delivered a sermon, right after 9/11, essentially blaming America for the terrorist attacks. Whereupon Obama felt compelled to say: "Absolutely, many of these remarks were objectionable. I've already said that I didn't hear them, because I wasn't in church that day. I didn't learn about those statements until much later." And regarding why he disinvited Wright to his announcement of candidacy, "that was on, that was on something entirely different...That, that was on a different statement."
Imagine you were a Pennsylvania swing voter, wary of Obama or simply undecided, and you were watching this debate, and you were trying to unpack these responses. You may well have asked yourself: "He only thinks that Wright's 9/11 sermon was 'objectionable'? He kept Wright away from his candidate announcement not because of his 9/11 statements, but because of some other statements? Are we supposed to assume those other statements were worse? But wait, I did hear him say that he didn't learn about Wright's 9/11 statements 'until much later'...but when was that? And, hey, ya think it's plausible that a sharp guy like Obama wouldn't have known about Wright's 9/11 sermon pretty quickly? Without, like, six or seven years going by?"
3. He even failed to slam-dunk the easiest hot-button question of the evening. It came, via videotape, from a lady in Latrobe: "I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't." (ABC co-host Charlie Gibson added, "It's all over the Internet," as if that somehow validated the question.)
His response: "I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins. This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us from what should be my job when I'm commander in chief..."
Instead of answering straightforwardly, Obama lied.
Contrast his statement last night with what he said on Oct. 3, 2007, when a TV reporter in Iowa asked why he wasn't wearing a flag pin: "You know, the truth is that, right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that (pin) became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism, which is (about) speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great and, hopefully, that will be a testimony to my patriotism."
Apparently, he decided last night that a truthful response would not be a sufficient pander; either that or he was too rattled to remember what he had once said. The bottom line, however, is that he had a golden opportunity to demonstrate the idiocy of this phony issue. He could have simply said this:
John McCain doesn't even wear a flag pin. In fact, when eight Republican candidates debated last autumn, seven of them did not wear flag pins.
4. He fumbled his responses to the newest scandale du jour, his Chicago associations with William Ayres, an English professor and neighbor who had been a bomber for the Weather Underground during the late '60s, and who remains unrepentant, telling The New York Times - on 9/11, no less - that "I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough."
Stephanopoulous broached this topic, which guarantees that the Ayres saga will be moving through the mainstream media bloodstream at least for the next few days. It had largely been simmering at the margins of the race. But now, on the eve of the Pennsylvania vote, it's potentially toxic for Obama, because many small-towners of a certain age don't have particularly fond memories of the days of rage.
Obama's initial impulse was to try to finesse the subject, then change it: "(Ayers) is not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis....The fact is, is that I'm also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, who during his campaign once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions. Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn's statements? Because I certainly don't agree with those either."
Yeah...but was Obama well served by equating a U.S. senator with a guy who may have been connected to as many as 25 domestic bombings (the number claimed by the Weather Underground)? Obama's vague answer - that Ayres "is not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis" - gave Clinton an opening, and she drove a Hummer through it.
She said: "Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position. And if I'm not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York, and I would hope to every American, because they were published on 9/11 and he said that he was just sorry they hadn't done more."
Again, imagine you were an undecided, culturally-conservative swing voter, and you were hungry for information about this new guy Obama, and now you were hearing about Ayers for the first time. And Obama gave a vague answer, whereupon he was immediately trumped by Clinton's revelation that Obama and Ayers served on a board together. The result? It looked as if Obama had been trying to minimize the association by hiding something...thereby making a relatively minor story look worse than it is.
By contrast, Clinton was crisp in her responses. Her full mea culpa on the Bosnia sniper lie - "I'm very sorry that I said it. And I have said that, you know, it just didn't jibe with what I had written about and knew to be the truth" - left little opportunity for follow up. And she was crisp and detailed when the debate finally moved to the policy front, particularly when the ABC inquisitors asked whether she would dare defy (may we all bow our heads in reverence at the mere mention of his name) General David Petraeus. Yes, she said, even if the surge is going well next January, she'd still require an incremental pullout plan: "You know, thankfully we have a system in our country of civilian control of the military."
Obama also had some good moments late in the debate, on substance. During an exchange about the future solvency of Social Security, for instance, he suggested the possibility of raising the payroll tax, Clinton knocked him for that and suggested instead that somebody should appoint a bipartisan commission to study the matter...and Obama quickly pointed out that, when a bipartisan commission last met, back in 1983, it wound up raising the payroll tax, and that the sky didn't fall.
But the viewing audience is biggest during the first 45 minutes, and it's questionable whether a sufficient number of Obama skeptics stuck around to hear him recoup on policy. So I score the night for Clinton...with John McCain smiling in the wings.