Tag: presidential debates

The First Democratic Debate: Clinton and Foreign Policy

My overall view of the first democratic debate of the 2016 nomination contest probably tracks with the consensus. I should disclose that I’ve contributed to the Sanders campaign and support it, even though my views on some issues are more conservative.

In brief, Clinton showed herself a capable and exceedingly well-prepared politician. I jokingly commented on social media that this encapsulates her biggest advantage and her biggest liability. But, to be honest, it really is much more of an asset than anything else. She’s extremely smart, experienced,  and skilled at politics. She is also surrounded by people with strong messaging skills—at least when it comes to focused activities, such as debates.

Sanders came across as he does in all other campaign settings: passionate, focused on the issues, and unwilling to go after his rivals in a deeply personal way. It reinforced suspicions among some that the rationale for his candidacy resides in a desire to push the eventual nominee—that is, Clinton—to the left on economic issues. That may have been his original intent, but he remains the only serious alternative to Clinton; my guess is that he takes the support that he’s generated very seriously.

Sanders’ performance, and the reaction it generated, likely come from his “unorthodox” debate preparation:

Sanders’ team sees the first Democratic debate as a chance to introduce a fairly niche candidate to a national audience. So his team intends to let him do what he’s been doing. Far from preparing lines to deploy against Clinton — let alone O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb — Sanders plans to dish policy details, learned through a handful of briefings with experts brought in by his campaign.

At some point, the Sanders campaign is going to need to make a choice about whether to pivot to a more orthodox approach. Given that one of Sanders’ major asset is his genuine, rather than affected, authenticity, this presents something of a challenge.

I respect Webb a great deal, but I don’t think that tacking to the right on issues like Iran is either good politics or good policy. He’s out of step with the Democratic electorate, and he has no chance at winning the nomination. Chafee’s performance was poor, and does nothing to dispel the key question of his campaign: “why are you even running?”

O’Malley, on the other hand, was comparatively impressive. His attempts to outflank Clinton on the left—particularly on foreign policy—weren’t perfectly implemented, but they point in the direction of how to press these points. For example:

I believe that, as president, I would not be so quick to pull for a military tool. I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria, at this time, actually, Secretary, would be a mistake.

You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret.

I support President Obama. I think we have to play a long game, and I think, ultimately — you want to talk about blunders? I think [Putin’s] invasion of Syria will be seen as a blunder.

And this, unsurprisingly, is what I want to talk about. Two of Clinton’s answers on foreign policy troubled me. But for different reasons. Continue reading


Tuesday Morning Debate Reaction

The final 2012 Presidential debate was a decisive “victory” for President Obama on both style and substance. Romney’s tack to the center left him with no other arguments than to invoke the resolve fairy and to call for a large increase in defense spending.

The dominant narrative among the pundit class seems to be that Obama won and that Romney did well enough for the debate not to matter. I’ve decided against making judgments about the political impact of debates, so I won’t comment on that.

The dominant narrative among international-affairs commentators is different. We found aspects of it downright painful.

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Three Things I’d Like to Hear During Tonight’s Debate



I’m guessing we’ll get more of the standard fare tonight: that the Benghazi attacks were bad; that Iran has to be deterred (will Romney bring Bibi’s bomb sketch?), that Syria is tragic, that the Arab Spring is scary, and that China and Russia are both really mean.      Afghanistan will get some attention, Iraq almost none.    Apparently, Bob Schieffer is not going to address a broader list but if he does, here are three issues I’d like to see addressed by the two candidates: Continue reading


Friday Morning Debate Reaction

I scored the Romney-Obama debate as a tactical win for Romney. As of now, it looks more like a strategic one. The lesson for me, I think, is not to assess the political ramifications of debates. So in this post, I’ll simply stick to reflecting on the foreign-policy component of the debate, which turned out to be much more prominent than most of us expected.

The bottom line is that, with the exception of the earlier Libya exchange, Biden owned Ryan. Indeed, the debate continued to underscore the vacuousness of much of the Romney campaign’s “political” critique of Obama foreign policy.

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Thursday Morning Debate Reactions

I had three immediate reactions to last night’s Presidential debate.

First, when one side is ecstatic and the other side is talking about how “debates don’t matter,” that’s a pretty good indication of who “won.”

Second, #bizarro2004 continues, with Mitt Romney playing the role of “John Kerry” and Barack Obama of “George W. Bush.”

In fairness, though, Romney was less stilted than Kerry and Obama wasn’t as bad as Bush was during the first debate of 2004.

Third, as a former policy debater and debate coach, I felt a bit like I was watching a decent national-circuit debater take on a decent regional debater in a round at a National Forensic League tournament. The regional debater simply couldn’t cover “the spread,” and so he didn’t try.

In the muggy air of a DC morning I stand by each of these snap judgments, but I do have some things to add.

Obama as Hitler: He Wishes!

I used to watch all of the presidential debates when I was in my late twenties and early thirties. Even though my party allegiance was never in doubt, I wanted to know the contours of the debate even for the other side, what there substantive differences were, where the daylight between the candidates was, etc.

I don’t do this any more. Obviously one reason is that they are just not informative. None of the candidates truly embrace policy ideas, and even if they did, that isn’t what is rewarded. So during their primaries, in particular, they draw largely semantic contrasts between other nominees in an obviously disingenous way. They make stupid, canned jokes that generally fall flat. I hate bad jokes.

Well, he could.

But when they do get substantive, it is even more pointless. This is because they always talk about their Plan. Plan for Energy Independence, Plan for Tax Reform, Plan for Health Care. Apparently they are on their campaign website. Even assuming that anyone ever reads them, why do they bother?

Every four years we have this bout of collective amnesia in which we forget that we are not electing a dictator for four years, but rather the head of a particular branch of government who has to contend with 535 idiots down the street. Even if Obama wanted to be Hitler, he couldn’t.

Now it might be better if the President is also not an idiot as well, and I suppose his Plans tell us something about whether that is the case. But nothing anything like any of these Plans will ever get passed by Congress, so what is the point of pointing out the tiny differences with other nominees, particularly in the same party?

An illustrative example: Obama went hard at Hillary in 2008 on her mandate for individuals to get insurance as unnecessary and perhaps draconian. “My plan wouldn’t require individuals to get insurance,” he said, or something like that. First, it was a dumb idea. You need the revenue from healthy people to pay for sick people. Any third grader gets that. Second, who the f*ck cares about Your Plan? Congress is just going to mangle it into something unrecognizable anyways. And they did. Obama didn’t even take his plan and make it his opening bid.

Really, all we need to know is whether you support universal health care or not? Do you believe that we should drill for oil right offshore? Should we tax the rich at a higher rate than currently? A simple yes or no will do. This is all we really need; everything else is extraneous and ultimately inconsequential. And we don’t need 18 months to get this down. Save your $200 million dollars. Fill out a questionnaire, shut up, and we’ll let you know in November.


Down With Negativity!

I am no expert on American political campaigns, and do not know the literature on political adverstisements. I have, however, done a fair amount of qualitative research aimed at measuring the meaning of things in a reliable, replicable way. So I’m curious to know who is using such a method to keep track of “negativity” in campaign ads?

Someone must be. Because the candidates both argued tonight not just that their opponent’s ads are perceived by others to be negative (a poll-based description of people’s impressions rather than the ads themselves) or that their opponent’s ads actually are negative (a subjective claim they can just support anecdotally) but that they know exactly how negative their opponent’s ads are.

Obama claimed that John McCain’s ads are “100% negative.” (Does he mean each ad is 100% negative, or that 100% of the ads are at least 1% negative?) Who has coded all of McCain’s ads to determine their negativity according to some reliable rubric?

McCain made even more sweeping claims: “My opponent has run the most negative campaign in history and I can prove it.” This “proof” would require not only demonstrating absolute negativity in ads but coding all comparable ads throughout American history to demonstrate relative negativity.

These are empirical (and empirically falsifiable) statements about the content of ads themselves. But neither cites their source. Who is keeping track of this, and how rigorous, I’m wondering, are the methods used? How does one measure “negativity” in ads such that coders of different political persuasions, working independently, would code the same ad the same way a reasonable amount of the time? What’s the actual definition of a negative ad, and what does the codebook look like? Which candidate came closer to being right on this question?


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