A few thoughts:
1) Why is Edwards still running? The guy hasn't won a primary yet, hasn't come close to winning one, and is not going to win one. At one point, when Clinton and Obama really got into it, Edwards asked "Are there just two people in this debate." The funny thing is, actually, there really are only two serious possible candidates.
My thought has been that he's trying to pull some decent percentages to use as leverage to be the VP candidate. But that's not a good strategy if he waits too long. Edwards' support comes mainly from the health-care/labor faction of the Democratic party--a faction that will be less relevant as the focus moves from party nomination to general election. The reality is that Edwards will not win. There are, I suspect, a good number of voters who know for sure they don't like Clinton, but who can't decide who is the better Clinton alternative. At this point, about the only thing that Edwards' candidacy is going to do is weaken Obama. As both Clinton and Edwards turned on Obama, the one thing that seemed clear was that Clinton sure is glad Edwards is still running.
2) Obama did seem a tad Janus-faced when he attacked Clinton and then asked for more civility. On the other hand, for me it's forgivable. With the attacks coming from the Clinton campaign lately, it's not realistic to expect Obama to not respond by giving her a bit of her own medicine. One thing he did do well was to actually have an explanation for what Clinton calls inconsistencies in his record.
He did get off one of the best lines of the night on this topic. When he said that Bill Clinton was distorting his record on behalf of his wife's campaign, Hillary tried to draw the focus away from Bill saying "I'm here, he's not." Obama shot back, "Well, sometimes its hard to tell who I'm running against."
Actually, I think Obama played a good rhetorical move by constantly bringing up Bill. You might think that Bill's popularity might make Obama want to draw the focus of him, but by constantly mentioning him in the same breath as Hillary, Obama continually reminded audiences that he's up against the Clinton machine, not just Hillary Clinton. It raises the unseemly specter of a behind the scenes third-term Bill behind his own version of a Manchurian candidate. It also makes Obama the underdog, and it allows him to write off his losses as the result of having been double-teamed.
3) Obama is better at responding to attacks than Clinton is. I think it's perfectly fair for a candidate to use personal attacks in politics. I also think it's perfectly fair for candidate to call the attacker to task for it.
It all started when Clinton started attacking Obama for having something nice to say about President Reagan. Obama's response:
What I said -- and I will provide you with a quote -- what I said was is that Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to. Because while I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.Fightin' words. So Clinton tries to respond. But rather than explain her ties to Wal-mart, she hits back.
CLINTON: Well, you know, I think we both have very passionate and committed spouses who stand up for us. And I'm proud of that.So what's worse, being on the board of Wal-mart, or representing a slum-lord? Close call. Both provide something that there is a market for, I guess. But compare Obama's response to Clinton's attack to her response to his attack:
But you also talked about the Republicans having ideas over the last 10 to 15 years.
OBAMA: I didn't say they were good ones.
CLINTON: Well, you can read the context of it.
OBAMA: Well, I didn't say they were good ones.
CLINTON: Well, it certainly...
OBAMA: All right, Wolf.
CLINTON: It certainly came across in the way that it was presented, as though the Republicans had been standing up against the conventional wisdom with their ideas. I'm just reacting to the fact, yes, they did have ideas, and they were bad ideas.
OBAMA: I agree.
CLINTON: Bad for America, and I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Resco, in his slum-lord business in inner city Chicago.
BLITZER: I just want to give you a chance, Senator Obama, if you want to respond. Senator Clinton made a serious allegation that you worked for a slumlord. And I wonder if you want to respond.Way more effective. Rather than hit back tit-for-tat, he corrects what he calls a lie on Clinton's part by putting his own spin on it, and then bringing it back to his theme about truthfulness in the campaign.
OBAMA: I'm happy to respond. Here's what happened: I was an associate at a law firm that represented a church group that had partnered with this individual to do a project and I did about five hours worth of work on this joint project. That's what she's referring to.
Now, it's fine for her to throw that out, but the larger reason that I think this debate is important is because we do have to trust our leaders and what they say. That is important, because if we can't, then we're not going to be able to mobilize the American people behind bringing about changes in health care reform, bringing about changes in how we're going to put people back to work, changing our trade laws. And consistency matters. Truthfulness during campaigns makes a difference.
Another moment when Clinton's attacks seemed to backfire was when she accused Obama of being evasive and unwilling to talk about his record. She brought up the fact that he voted against an amendment that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30%. Obama explained that he voted against the amendment because he thought 30% was too high, and he wanted to see serious debate on the issue before voting for anything. The irony of it all, is that even though Obama voted against the amendment, he still voted against the bill it was attached to, while Clinton and Edwards both voted for it before changing their minds and voting against it. But Clinton's attack did not go well, and it was the only time a candidate drew audible boos from the audience. She said:
Well, you know, Senator Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.
You, in the -- now, wait a minute. In the Illinois state legislature...
4) This is my most superficial observation. Compare the three candidates when they raise their voice. When Edwards does it, he drawls more and it just accentuates his folksiness. When Obama does it, his voice deepens and becomes more resonant. When Clinton does it, it grates on my ears. She sounds feisty, yes, which is what I think she's going for, but she also sounds shrill. It's not good for her. I think she would do better to keep an even-keel. I know there's a certain misogynistic connotation associated with the word "shrill," but I honestly can't think of a word that better describes Clinton's voice.
5) One last thought. The last question of the debate was "If MLK were alive today, why would he endorse you?" Edwards actually answered the question fairly well. He said that King's life was dedicated to eradicating poverty and that his campaign is as well. Obama said that King would endorse none of them because he would let people make their own choices. Clinton basically ignored the question and talked about how nice it is that there's an African-American, and woman, and a "son of the south" (zip-a-de-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay! My dad worked in a mill, so vote for me!) running together. While Obama came the closest, none gave the answer that I wanted to hear. If it were me, this is how I would have responded:
Well, I fundamentally disagree with the premise of that question, that we ought to be speaking for Dr. King and claiming him as our own to use as a weapon against each other in our political fight. Rather than speak for him, we ought to let his life and his work speak for itself. I refuse to claim Dr. King as mine alone because his legacy is one that belongs to all Americans. But I will tell you how my vision for America is consistent with Dr. King's dream...
Anyway, here's the transcript of the debate.