Sunday, January 06, 2008

New Hampshire Debates

Saturday night, ABC televised debates from St. Anselm College near Manchester featuring first six Republican candidates, then four Democratic candidates. The debate format was a bit more free-form than other ones, which I think led to a more interesting debate, with more of the candidates talking to each other, more in-depth answers, and fewer soundbites. I watched the whole thing.

The Republicans disagreed more on the issues, again; with the Democrats it was again more a matter of who was the best messenger, and the policy differences were in the details. The focus of the Republican debate was Mitt Romney, as the other candidates all went on the attack against him. To Romney's credit, I think he did a good job fending them off - he showed that he was knowledgeable of the issues and able to defend his positions well. There's still a lot I don't agree with him on -- besides civil liberties and the war, there's things like his bizarre belief that we can deport all the illegal immigrants in the country now, and that it would be a good idea -- but he looked like a competent, serious candidate where the others just offered platitudes.

He was strongest on health care, outlining how the plan he managed in Massachusetts could work nationwide. He threw in a cheap shot about the country not needing "Hillarycare," but in reality his plan isn't that different from what the Democrats are proposing. Good job dismissing McCain's "straight talk" (more accurately, knee-jerk) demonization of the pharmaceutical companies, too.

The best Republican on illegal immigration was actually Rudy Giuliani, refusing to scapegoat the illegal immigrants at all, but falling short of questioning the moronic system that supports the free trade of goods while restricting the free trade of labor. On everything else, though, it was a litany of 9/11 this, Islamic terrorism that, etc.

Easily the lamest of the bunch was Fred Thompson, who looked like he had just woken up from a nap every time the moderator called him, and never offered much of any reason to vote for him that went beyond what one could presumably find in the opening paragraph of the Republican Party platform. Actual quote: "...for the first time on September, uh, 11th..."

It was fun to watch Ron Paul call the others idiots for their continued support of Bush's disastrous foreign policies, but seriously, the American public doesn't care about monetary policy and going off the gold standard has nothing at all to do with making health care affordable.

In the Democratic debate, I was most impressed with John Edwards, who did a great job of coming forward and making the case that Hillary Clinton was not the best person to effect change in Washington. I'm not on board with all of his talk against special interests, though. Obviously I don't think the government should be for sale, but in my book an intelligent candidate will learn to work with interest groups for the public good and not dismiss them outright. Hillary, for her part, though, looked on top of her game, made her points without being grating about it, and even showed a sense of humor at one point ("That hurts my feelings.")

Others have said it, and I agree, that Obama isn't anywhere near as dynamic in debates as he is giving a solo speech. That's not a fatal flaw, but it'll prevent me from having any illusions that he's a perfect candidate. In addition to the standard things like abortion that I disagree with most Democrats on, I think the health insurance mandates advocated by Edwards, Clinton, and even Romney are more sound than the optional health insurance that's in Obama's plan. He looked strongest, however, early in the debate when they were talking foreign policy, and I believe that as President he'd do the most to improve our standing on the international scene.

Obama's approach to public appearances seems to be to inspire people in his speeches while giving explanations as to what more precisely he'd do in the debates. His opponents will see the speeches and then say he's nothing but an empty suit, but I think the substance is there. He just doesn't see a victory speech as a time to outline policy; it's a time to build on his popularity and get people on his side. And he did a good job in the debate of laying out this strategy when Clinton said that her record spoke louder than his words; she may have more experience, but being persuasive is crucial to getting things done as an executive. People resist Clinton, but they see Obama and want to join his brigade.

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