So instead of listening to the talking heads on MSNBC review tonight's debate, I'll just do it myself. First, I want to say that Tim Russert should never be allowed near a candidates' debate ever again. He has no idea how to state a question properly, and he has no idea what to ask in the first place. His questions were too often irrelevant or inappropriate. His question to Sen. Clinton about White House secrecy was horribly botched, for example - how can Sen. Clinton, if elected, do anything about the wishes of a previous president with regards to secrecy, even if said former president is married to her? And what the hell was he doing asking about UFOs to Rep. Kucinich? Russert too often appeared to be trying to get candidates to make frivolous, counterfactual promises and endorse bold policy moves instead of asking actual, substantive questions that could elicit thoughtful, informative responses. It's irresponsible "gotcha" journalism at its worst. There are far better ways to get politicians to discuss specifics - Russert should think of them.
MSNBC's format, also, left a lot to be desired. How do you expect education policy to be properly discussed in thirty seconds? How do you give health care such short shrift? What's the point of asking Sen. Obama about his kids' Halloween costumes? And the entire "electability" discussion was completely unnecessary, uninformative, and otherwise worthless.
Anyway, here I'll give my rankings of the Democratic candidates and describe how I think they did in this debate. From the top:
T-1. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton: Sen. Clinton continues a near-flawless campaign. I appreciated her answer to Russert's stupid question asking her to pledge to not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, and I also appreciated her refusal to not take war with Iran off the table. She seems to understand that rash decision-making and over-dedication to ideology is what got us into this mess, and the worst thing we can do now is make rash, ideological decisions that are nothing but a reaction to failed Bush policy. Her refusal to attach herself to a specific policy at Russert's begging is a natural reaction to all the flip-flop gotcha crap that has infected our political discourse like a bad virus, and until we quit calling "flip-flop" on anyone who has their mind changed by experience or good evidence, I'll give Clinton - and the other candidates - the benefit of the doubt on that. Domestically her ideas seemed sound, minimalist - and baby steps are generally how things get done in Washington.
T-1. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: Gov. Richardson is the only candidate other than Sen. Clinton to not categorically rule out war with Iran. His argument for why Sen. Clinton was wrong to vote for the designation of Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization made sense (he thought it was just the sort of saber-rattling that ultimately benefits the Iranian regime), and his domestic policies were sound and reasonable. I like the concrete goals set by his energy policy. 50 MPG may seem like a high bar for Detroit, but given enough time it's a high bar that Detroit is more than capable of reaching. And you have to admit - a debate between Richardson and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson would be awesome. You could drink every time they say "um" - and be toasted in ten minutes. Oh, and Richardson calling out the rest of the candidates for attacking Sen. Clinton was the badass moment of the debate.
3. Delaware Sen. Joe Biden: Surprisingly, Biden was the only other candidate that refused to speak in platitudes the whole time. Biden's positions are always well thought out, and even though he has taken to some more bombastic rhetoric of late, he would still bring a thoughtfulness to the presidency that we desperately need. This debate was his best performance yet - he only seemed to discuss his policy agenda and little else. For the normally undisciplined Biden, that's a hell of an accomplishment. His little stand-up routine about Giuliani was a great way to get back at Rudolph the Red Faced Mayor for his attack on Clinton, and a good way to deal with Richardson's critique of the anti-Clinton tenor of the debate thus far.
4. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama: Not his best debate. He seemed more interested in attacking Sen. Clinton than introducing America to his policy ideas - bizarre because, when he did introduce policy ideas, they were seldom much different from Sen. Clinton's. He's starting to show a lack of temperance that will get a president into trouble (ask Dubya). His inexperience is starting to show - his campaign is panicking and he hasn't spoken in more than platitudes in any significant way, which is a problem at this late date. He'll make a great candidate in 2016, though.
5. Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd: Dodd seemed to just join the "pile on Clinton" chorus during the foreign policy debate - unbecoming of someone who has his long, distinguished foreign service record. I don't remember anything new that he added to the domestic policy debate, though that was done in such whirlwind fashion and he got passed up by the moderators a lot. His one domestic moment - criticizing New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer for giving unauthorized immigrants a driver's license - rang hollow with anyone concerned about road safety. He had no good answer for Clinton's explanation that Gov. Spitzer was dealing with a Congressional failure, and instead degenerated into Lou Dobbs-esque rambling.
6. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards: Sen. Edwards actually benefited from being forced to package his ideas into 30-second soundbites. The "lightning round" discussions of health care and education were the only times he sounded remotely intelligent. The rest of the time he spoke in platitudes, failed to discuss policy, and launched gratuitous attacks on Sen. Clinton. He's way off his excellent 2004 form. He doesn't realized that we're tired of the bleating about corruption and how the system doesn't work - we want to know what he'll do about it. He consistently failed to address that tonight.
7. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich: I learned from the debate that Rep. Kucinich cares about two things - ending the Iraq war immediately and instituting single-payer health care. Kucinich benefited from having former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel around - Gravel took the moonbat aura away from Kucinich. With Gravel gone, Kucinich is left to act crazy. It's a bad rap, and Kucinich's ideas shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, but he does have a "my way or the highway" attitude about his ideas that the past seven years have proven is very, very bad for a president.
So there's my list. Feel free to discuss. Next Republican debate I'll rank the candidates on that side. Anyone know when that is?
Oh, and a bonus link to an excellent article about how Rudolph The Red Faced Mayor is not really a moderate. The idea rings true - you can't call someone a moderate based on one or two issue positions. Goldwater believed in abortion rights - doesn't make him a moderate.