Thursday Night, 11/15/07, 7:45 p.m. E.S.T.
Wolf Blitzer is on my television screen right now flogging the latest installment of that moveable feast of pre-packaged baloney known as the 2008 presidential debates. This time it's the Democrats, and Wolf is promising that this particular episode will be more important than Lincoln-Douglas and Kennedy-Nixon combined. He does not actually speak these words, but his eyes betray his excitement and even his beard seems to pulse with anticipation.
The reason, of course, is that last time out, Hillary Clinton, heiress to Bubba political fortune, finally stumbled. We know this because that single verb, stumbled, passed the lips of nearly every pundit on the talk show carousel. She also stubbed her toe several times and dented her armor repeatedly. And you thought it was only the comedy writers who were on strike.
As you probably know by now, the former First Lady spun out on a question about the wisdom of providing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, a plan proposed—and now withdrawn—by New York Governor Eliot "One Term" Sptizer. The junior senator's response (she favored the idea, though not the specific idea, though maybe not so much after all) was, shall we say, nuanced enough that she found herself in the unfamiliar role of piñata with John Edwards, Barack Obama, and even the single-digit guys like Chris Dodd laying into her and drawing blood (or candy, if you'd prefer to stay with the metaphor).
As the story built, and with only O.J. Simpson's tragicomic life for competition (oh, plus a couple of wars, too, if they still count), Senator Clinton's poll numbers took a sharp turn southward and her inevitability became, well, evitable. Wolf and the gang attributed this to the debate, though it almost certainly had more to do with the relentless post-debate media coverage that convinced the casual viewer, who didn't watch the event itself, that Hillary Clinton is 1) a flip-flopper who 2) wants to hand out driver's licenses like breath mints so that 3) non-Americans can more easily board airplanes that fly over 4) your children's school. Given this unexpected shot at redemption, Barack Obama seemed to recapture his famous eloquence and John Edwards' Cheshire cat smile threatened to white out the entire state of Iowa.
So here we are five minutes before the principals take the stage in that most subtle of American cities, Las Vegas, Nevada, for this most subtle of political events. Wolf can barely speak through the palpitations. If only they could require the contestants to don those old American Gladiator costumes. Anyway, here goes…
Two-Plus Hours Later
God help us, the very first question of the night, addressed to Hillary Clinton, asserted that she "stumbled" in her previous outing. Somebody should have started a drinking game. Actually, someone should have purchased a thesaurus.
Still, a funny thing happened on the way to the steel cage death match. Like kids on Halloween, Blitzer and crew just couldn't wait to Wolf down all the chocolate bars as soon as they walked in the front door. Rather than allowing the intramural hostility to simmer to a slow, natural boil, the questioners forced the issue right off the bat, allowing Clinton, Obama, and Edwards to spend the initial quarter hour of the debate leveling charges and countercharges.
By the time the first noncombatant was allowed to speak—I think it was Joe Biden—almost all the bile had been spilled and Wolf found himself compelled, much to his evident dismay, to move from personalities to issues. Campbell Brown tried to relight the fuse somewhere around the one hour mark, questioning Hillary about her reference to her fellow candidates as the "boys club", but to no avail. The senator slugged the offering over the fence, across the Strip, and into the Bellagio fountain, and only one of the boys (Edwards) was dumb enough to attempt a rebuttal.
Other than that, though, it was a surprisingly watchable debate, even if most of the candidates agreed with one another most of the time. Leaving aside Dennis Kucinich, still channeling Eugene Debs through Shirley MacLaine's dentures, it would be difficult to park a Vespa in the spaces between these candidates' platforms. But those differences that did exist were effectively highlighted and clarified to the benefit of any truly undecided voters who happened to be in the audience. By frontloading all the nonsense about who was flipping and who was flopping, Wolf and the Wolfettes inadvertently put together a meaty show that enlightened rather than titillated. Even the characteristically self-indulgent questions from audience members weren't as distracting as usual.
So who won? I don't know. I think everyone did pretty well, even Kucinich, whose comments at least remained terrestrial this time around. They all left the arena with their market shares intact, which probably means that the primary beneficiary was the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. I suppose if I had to choose a single winner, I'd go with Bill Richardson. After a series of awkward, uneven performances over the past six months, Richardson appeared downright Vice Presidential tonight, befitting the only office to which he could still reasonably aspire.
In the end, the Most Important Presidential Debate Ever did not entirely live up to its advance billing as a difference maker. Still, credit where credit is due: the Wolfster did a generally good job of letting the candidates have their say without insinuating himself too much into the proceedings, unlike NBC's Tim Russert, whose tiresome gotcha act demeans everything it touches and nurtures more voter cynicism than a whole latrine full of Larry Craigs. Clap for the Wolfman!
Friday Morning, 11/16/07, 7:45 a.m. E.S.T.
So CNN hosts perhaps the most substantive candidate forum of this entire, ceaseless campaign season, and how do they headline their wrap-up coverage?
"Democrats Spar in Heated Debate"
The "Most Trusted Name in News" at your service.