March 05, 2004
I wrote this immediately after the WTTW Democratic debate, so here are my immediate reactions.
The Overall Winners: Chico, Hynes and Obama.
For a guy with low poll numbers, Chico was surprisingly confident. Even though his gay marriage stance will be unpopular with most of the electorate, he sold it well and maintained this upbeat confidence throughout the debate. As a lawyer, debates are a comfortable venue for him and it showed tonight. Of course, as a non-frontrunner he didn’t get challenged much by moderator Phil Ponce or the other candidates, but still he exceeded my expectations.
Hynes made a good case for his accomplishments and abilities without being overbearing. That takes a certain knack and he had it tonight. He generally came across as affable and articulate even while sharply rebuking Hull for accusing he and Obama for having ties to special interests (more on that below). His attempt to equate his extensive organizational structure with genuine enthusiasm for his candidacy is laughable, but overall he was pretty solid and showed himself to be a legitimate frontrunner.
When commentators talk about the gravitas factor in campaigns, I generally interpret that to mean the rare combination of confidence and accomplishment, or more precisely the melding of those two factors. Whatever it is, Obama had it tonight. Every answer he gave was backed up by some legislation he had either passed or endorsed, and he handled Hull’s charge of being tainted by special interest money with aggressive poise by calmly explicating that he has consistently lobbied against drug companies despite receiving contributions from them. Even the moment in which Hull demanded an apology from him for discounting Hull’s anti-war stance was handled masterfully by diluting Hull’s charge and using the time to reiterate his own consistency on the issue. He’s the best debater among the five hands down and with the legitimacy that comes with the key endorsements he picked up this week this debate might be a springboard in the polls for him.
The Losers: Pappas and Hull
Yesterday, while assessing Pappas’ new commercial I was befuddled why it features this goofy circus music in the background. Now I know why. Because this is her strategy: she’s different from “typical” candidates and she’s going to show you that through quirky ads and whimsical debating tactics. The only problem is that she forgot the substance. Why will she be different in the Senate? Because she’s a woman and will concentrate on women’s issue? Because she has some progressive and/or radical tax, educational, or social plan? Well, we really don’t know what will substantively make her different, because all she keeps doing is repeating that she’s different, different, different. Snooze, snooze, snooze. Her performance tonight was a mess without question. Here she is with just over a week left before the primary with a shot (however long) to squeak by as Hull is tanking and this is how she performs? From the long expose about her commercial’s strategy (what better way to insult your audience than to tell them how you are trying to sell yourself to them) to the odd jabs at Ponce for, gasp!, asking her tricky questions, Pappas consistently embarrassed herself. I can’t even recall anything constructive she had to say because it was all garbled in her awkward and anxious stage presence. I want to like her, seriously I do, but she just gives you nothing but empty promises of being somehow different.
As for Hull, this debate was a fitting end to a nightmare week of bad press. Ponce was all over him all night and rightly so. With each question, you could see Hull try to steer away to an easy talking point, but Ponce would have none of that. At least four times, he interrupted Hull in order to get him to answer the question and that naturally recast Hull as being on the defensive. And he never shed that identity for the rest of the debate. Add to that Hull’s poor public speaking skills and things quickly turned into a disaster for him. The best example was his voting record. “Uhhh….uhhh….I voted in 1964.” You know that you’ve lost the audience when they start laughing after one of your attempted saves. His one attempt to go on the offensive against Obama for not recognizing Hull’s early anti-war comments backfired when Obama stole the stage and deftly dissolved Hull’s point. Rather than take a minute or so and talk about his own position on the war, Hull effectively passed the mike and gave Obama more free airtime. A classic backfire and basic debating mistake, especially when you could see in Hull’s eyes that he thought he had Obama cornered. To his credit, Hull finally fully explicated his position on his divorce incident, claiming that the order of protection was financially motivated. That seems to be a plausible explanation given Hull's otherwise clean record with women, but it remains to be seen whether women’s groups and voters will interpret this as minimizing the incident. In any case, why didn’t he come out with this version of the story early last week?
What was the most interesting thing about the debate however was the tag team that Obama and Hynes performed on poll leader Hull. I assume that they both think that they can win if Hull’s number drops down significantly, which is why they defended one other on several occasions against Hull’s special interest accusations. Being the frontrunner, Hull should have been expecting this, but he nonetheless didn’t handle these attacks well. His most effective point, that he is outside the special interest/politics-as-usual realm, was nullified as Hynes defended Obama and Obama saved Hynes.
Now I can see why Hynes would want to team up with Obama, but not the other way around. Given the media endorsements and rising poll numbers, I would think that Obama would want Hull to stay slightly in contention, because ex-Hull voters would probably go to Hynes. Doesn’t he want them to split that portion of the electorate?