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By Jay Cost

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Obama Takes the Bait

Like many, I thought the questions at last night's debate were tough and sometimes a little small.

That being said, I disagree with the suggestion that this is a new feature to these debates. Hardly. This is par for the course. I recall the debate on October 30, 2007 - hosted by MSNBC - that focused relentlessly on Clinton. When the focus was off Clinton, the questions were weak.

What connects these debates? Both were focused on the frontrunner. In October, Clinton was in the lead. So, she took the heat. Today, Obama is the frontrunner. So, it's his turn. The media being the media, it asks hot questions not about policy - but about the silly campaign soap opera. That's what it does.

Unfortunately, Obama did not help himself. In fact, the hard time he received was partially his fault. There were two critical instances of this.

The first came near the beginning of the debate. After the moderators asked each candidate about the veep slot, Gibson gave Obama an opportunity to clarify his "bitter" comments. He did a good job. He said:

Well, I think there's no doubt that I can see how people were offended. It's not the first time that I've made, you know, a statement that was mangled up. It's not going to be the last.

But let me be very clear about what I meant, because it's something that I've said in public, it's something that I've said in television, which is that people are going through very difficult times right now and we are seeing it all across the country. And that was true even before the current economic hardships that are stemming from the housing crisis. This is the first economic expansion that we just completed in which ordinary people's incomes actually went down, when adjusted for inflation, at the same time as their costs of everything from health care to gas at the pump have skyrocketed.

Good answer.

Gibson then gave it over to Clinton for a response. She hit Obama, but not terribly hard. She said:

I don't believe that my grandfather or my father, or the many people whom I have had the privilege of knowing and meeting across Pennsylvania over many years, cling to religion when Washington is not listening to them. I think that is a fundamental, sort of, misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are good and times that are bad.

And I similarly don't think that people cling to their traditions, like hunting and guns, either when they are frustrated with the government. I just don't believe that's how people live their lives.

Now, that doesn't mean that people are not frustrated with the government. We have every reason to be frustrated, particularly with this administration.

But I can see why people would be taken aback and offended by the remarks. And I think what's important is that we all listen to one another and we respect one another and we understand the different decisions that people make in life, because we're a stronger country because of that.

Now, let's get real. That's not too hard. I mean, Obama really stepped in it with those "bitter" comments, and he should expect to pay. He should have let this be the last word. Let his people do the serious pushback, but get the debate off this subject. Take this hit - it wasn't that bad! - and just move on.

For their part, Gibson and Stephanopoulos seemed satisfied. They moved on to a tough question for Clinton. Stephanopoulos asked: "Senator Clinton, when Bill Richardson called you to say he was endorsing Barack Obama, you told him that Senator Obama can't win. I'm not going to ask you about that conversation. I know you don't want to talk about it. But a simple yes-or-no question: Do you think Senator Obama can beat John McCain or not?"

Stephanopoulos boxed Clinton in here. Either she says something that she can't say in public, or she looks two-faced. She chose the latter, thus yielding a free point for Obama.

They then turn it over to Obama for a rebuttal, which would have been a great opportunity to talk up his electability. What did he do? He returned to the "bitter" comments. He said:

Let me just pick up on a couple of things that Senator Clinton said, though, because during the course of the last few days, you know, she's said I'm elitist, out of touch, condescending. Let me be absolutely clear. It would be pretty hard for me to be condescending towards people of faith, since I'm a person of faith and have done more than most other campaigns in reaching out specifically to people of faith, and have written about how Democrats make an error when they don't show up and speak directly to people's faith, because I think we can get those votes, and I have in the past. [SNIP]

So the problem that we have in our politics, which is fairly typical, is that you take one person's statement, if it's not properly phrased, and you just beat it to death. And that's what Senator Clinton's been doing over the last four days. And I understand that.

This wasn't a convincing hit. He certainly didn't say anything that he hasn't said many times already. Of course, since he attacked Clinton, Gibson gave her a chance to respond. This was when she really nailed him:

Well, first of all, I want to be very clear. My comments were about your remarks.

And I think that's important, because it wasn't just me responding to them, it was people who heard them, people who felt as though they were aimed at their values, their quality of life, the decisions that they have made.


Obama was hit later on when Gibson went after him for his staff's petty emails about Bosnia. So, his response actually induced two clean counter-punches. The frustrating thing watching this is that his initial response was great. He should have let that be the end of it. Instead, Obama chose not to let this go. Rather than take the hit and move on, he hit back - and he was worse off for it.

This happened again, immediately after this exchange ended. Gibson moved on to ask Obama about Jeremiah Wright.

Senator Obama, since you last debated, you made a significant speech in this building on the subject of race and your former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And you said subsequent to giving that speech that you never heard him say from the pulpit the kinds of things that so have offended people.

But more than a year ago, you rescinded the invitation to him to attend the event when you announced your candidacy. He was to give the invocation. And according to the reverend, I'm quoting him, you said to him, "You can get kind of rough in sermons. So what we've decided is that it's best for you not to be out there in public." I'm quoting the reverend. But what did you know about his statements that caused you to rescind that invitation?

This was a fair question. Obama, for his part, gave a good response. He didn't answer Gibson's question directly. Instead, he pivoted to a nice discussion of how his campaign is a people's movement. So, two times he did well with the initial response. His problem, once again, came in his follow up.

As per usual, Gibson gave Clinton a chance to respond. But he asked her a tough question about what she said:

There are 8,000 members of Senator Obama's church. And we have heard the inflammatory remarks of Reverend Wright, but so too have we heard testament to many great things that he did. Do you honestly believe that 8,000 people should have gotten up and walked out of that church?

Clinton being Clinton, she wriggled out of this in a single sentence. "I was asked a personal question, Charlie, and I gave a personal answer." Then, Clinton being Clinton, she hit Obama for the Wright thing. It was a good hit - about Wright's post-9/11 comments. It was harder than her first hit on him about "bitter."

Once again, Obama could have responded or moved on. Once again, he chose to respond. I would have chosen to move on. The Wright thing has not done any appreciable damage yet, so why belabor it? For some reason, that's what he chose to do. Gibson, who apparently didn't like that Obama had not answered his initial question, would have none of it. This was the exchange:

SENATOR OBAMA: Well, let me just respond to -- to two things. 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.

But --

MR. GIBSON: But you did rescind the invitation to him --

SENATOR OBAMA: But that was on -- that was on something entirely different, Charlie. That -- that was on a different statement. And I think that what Senator Clinton referred to was extremely offensive, to me and a lot of people.

This response was poor. It inclines one to ask, "Well - what 'entirely different' remark were you worried enough about to uninvite him?" Not a good exchange for Obama, who continued with a broad point about Wright. Stephanapoulus then asked him a tough-but-trivial question about whether his pastor loves America. By this point Obama was a little dazed. He went on to say that he had "disowned" Wright. Of course, he had done precisely the opposite, but he knows that. He was simply off his game by now.

[Update, 3:40 PM. Upon prompting from an emailer, I took a closer look at the relevant passage, and found that Obama does not actually say he had "disowned" Wright. I thought he had accidentally said that, and had just flubbed it. He didn't. Instead, his sentence was just awkward and his word choice poor. The relevant sentence is, "And, you know, the notion that somehow that the American people are going to be distracted once again by comments not made by me but by somebody who is associated with me, that I have disowned, I think doesn't give the American people enough credit." This is what induced the request for clarification from Gibson, after which Obama stated that he meant the remarks, not the man. The first problem is the choice of word, "disown." The second problem is placing the "I have disowned" clause after "somebody," not after "comments." Both injected some ambiguity, and were thus signs that he was off.]

I would have been, too. By this point, he had taken some serious blows from Clinton and the moderators. But who is to blame? We can, and perhaps should, give Gibson and Stephanopoulos a rough time for hitting him, though it is silly to say that this is unique. The only unique thing about this is that Obama, not Clinton, was taking the shots from the moderators.

What's more, Obama clearly committed some tactical errors here. He chose to get into it with Clinton on both subjects. He had an opportunity to take his lumps and move on - but he refused. And what happened both times? He was hit even harder.

This is Clinton's territory. She's completely comfortable down there in the muck. She even seems to like it. Journalists like it, too. It gives them an opportunity to seem smart and tough. So, unsurprisingly, Clinton, Gibson, and Stephanopoulos were all trying to draw Obama into it. Obama is not comfortable down there, and it showed. His mistake was being tricked into going down there.

Clinton often reminds me a bit of George Foreman. She has one mode in these debates: pound the crap out of everything in her path. You'd think that this would give Obama an opportunity. Like Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle, he could bide his time until she over-extends herself, then nail her. But that didn't happen. Last night, Clinton managed to draw Obama into a slugfest.

For her part, Clinton knew she had gotten the better of Obama, and chose to back off. This was the most incredible moment in the debate. It came after the Ayers exchange. Obama had just responded with the comment that her husband had pardoned some members of the Weather Underground. Then:

MR. GIBSON: And Senator Clinton, I'm getting out of balance in terms of time.

SENATOR CLINTON: I've noticed. (Laughs.)

MR. GIBSON: And you're getting shortchanged here. And so if you want to reply here, fine. If you want to wait, we'll do it in the next half hour.


-Jay Cost