The Plank

Who Won Last Night's Debate?


I don't think I saw the same debate that the Daily Kos poll readers did. They think that John Edwards won the debate, followed by Barack Obama. I have nothing against John Edwards--in fact, I have often argued that, on paper, he is best Democratic candidate for president, although not the best prepared to be president--but I thought that if there was one loser among the top tier candidates, it was Edwards. His responses appeared canned and phony. I wondered when listening to him whether worries over his wife's illness were affecting him. His answer about how he could reconcile his populism with his role as a consultant to a hedge fund was classic doublespeak:

Well, I think what--first of all, I think the financial markets are an important component of trying to figure out what it is we need to do about the fact that we have 47 million people without health care, 37 million people who wake up in poverty every day.
They play an enormous role in how money moves in this country. And I happen to believe that we have a responsibility to the people in this country who wake up every day worried about feeding and clothing their children.
And I think those people in New York who work in financial markets understand--in some ways, at least--what can be done and can play a significant role in trying to lift people up who are struggling.

What, then, to make of the Daily Kos reader poll showing that Edwards "won" the debate? I can only think of two explanations. The first is the psychological propensity of people to see the best in their favorites. Edwards's standing in the debate poll tracks pretty well with his leading the Daily Kos reader poll about presidential choice, where on April 16 he was the choice of 42 percent compared to 25 percent for Obama. Hillary Clinton trailed with 3 percent! The second possibility is that the Edwards people--perhaps without any specific direction from the campaign--were stuffing the ballot box the way that candidates and their supporters sometimes do to affect straw polls. Let's go with the first, especially given the grudging recognition by 12 percent (compared to 19 percent for Edwards) that Hillary Clinton gave the best performance.

In my own view, Hillary Clinton gave the best performance of the candidates. She was self-assured, clear. Obama got better after the first hour, but appeared ill at ease in his first responses. Chris Dodd won't get the nomination, but he showed that experience does count in answering political questions. It's never clear to me, though, what really matters in these debates. Sometimes it is a single line that sums up a candidate's appeal--Ronald Reagan was a master of these--or that destroys their candidacy. But I don't think there was an instance of either in this first debate.

--John B. Judis

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