Democrats debated in New Hampshire last night for what seems like the 566th time, but this debate differed dramatically from those in the spring and summer -- last night's debate was all about pit bull Tim Russert, the tough host of NBC's Meet the Press. He was a man on a mission as he peppered the debate with potshots at the frontrunners. While he might have been trying to get the candidates to discuss issues they've been ducking, he unfortunately ended up undercutting the opportunity to address real fiscal issues.
new poll shows Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has increased her lead in New Hampshire to 23 percentage points over Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.) with the other candidates appearing as specks in the rear-view mirror.
Russert seemed to be trying to change that equation last night and turn it back into a competitive race. The effort fell flat.
A more interesting aspect of the debate came late when Russert turned talk to Medicare and Social Security and how the country is going to keep paying for them. Russert suggested the obvious solution to the crisis would be to raise the payroll cap on earned income for Social Security tax -- it stands at $97,500 now -- and wanted to know if the candidates would raise taxes to solve the fiscal crisis. How he framed the question, however, killed any reasonable discussion of the issue.
Only Sen. Clinton's response began to address the issue. Before considering any option, she would want to consider fiscal responsibility first, harking back to her husband's record on creating a surplus during his tenure. Second, she wants a bi-partisan process to work toward a solution. Any idea would be considered in context with that process.
Barack Obama repeated the usual theme that the youth of today are worried about Social Security. John Edwards tried to turn it into a debate about trust and Washington making decisions. Bill Richardson rambled on about how growth would take care of it all but had no numbers to back the assertion. Both Obama and Edwards agreed raising the cap on taxes was the likely answer.
Regrettably, the rest of the debate seemed mired in Russert proving his mettle and his independence. He spent the first 15 minutes of the debate on ending the war in Iraq, and he tried to pin down the candidates on making a pledge as to when they would withdraw troops.
The highlights here came from Obama and Sen. Biden (D.-Del.). Obama stumbled over his answers as if trying to remember his talking points. You could almost hear him thinking aloud -- "you've been against the war since 2002; Clinton and Edwards were for it." Debates have not been helped him inspire. It's the one area he has yet to master on the campaign trail and it has held him back from moving up in the polls.
Sen. Joe Biden couldn't wait to speak on his plan for Iraq. His federalist plan passed in the Senate 75-23 on Wednesday, and he was quick to point out it was the first time the Senate had bucked President Bush's poor policies in Iraq. (It only took 4 and half years, a point he failed to mention.
I wrote about its possible financial implications, particularly the gusher it could prove to be for oil, on Tuesday.)
Biden couldn't get away from his focus on foreign affairs. While discussing immigration and sanctuary cities he blurted out, "Giuliani is the most uninformed politician in the country," in an effort to respond to something Russert had mentioned about Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Iran. It was a strange moment. It will be of interest to hear Mr. Giuliani's response Thursday.
The debate turned even more bizarre in the second segment. Tim Russert's strategy seemed to be: bring up any failure the candidates had had in their past. It was harshest grilling I have seen in any of the debates and at times it was brutal.
Russert bashed Sen. Clinton on health care failure in 1993. He brought up John Edwards' 2004 flip-flop on universal health care and its heavy cost. He hammered Barack Obama on a 2004 statement that he wouldn't run for higher office. He skewered Mike Gravel on a personal bankruptcy. He drilled Bill Richardson on the statistics of poor children in New Mexico. He wondered why Dennis Kucinich let Cleveland go belly up in the 1980s.
Strangely, he was softer on senators Biden and Dodd. Does gray hair get you a pass? I wouldn't be surprised if many pundits call either of them the winners because of the unbalanced attacks.
The final segment was supposed to be the lightning round of quick 30 second questions. It really turned into Russert trying to sink Senator Clinton.
He questioned Clinton on whether it's a good idea to have a continuation of the Bush/Clinton dynasties. He asked her about fundraising and Norman Hsu and linking it to transparency on presidential libraries and foundations.
Russert gave a hypothetical about using torture that he got from a mystery guest who appeared on Meet the Press. After Clinton disavowed torture as an American principle, Russert proudly revealed the mystery guest to be her husband -- William Jefferson Clinton.
Russert tried to be "fair" by also attacking Edwards on hair cuts and hedge funds and knocking Obama on experience. But it just wasn't the same.
I guess a new fad has been set in Presidential Primary debates -- attack candidates to see how they react.
Fox did the same a few weeks ago with the Republicans. I'm not sure we want this process to select a president.
Despite all the attempts to draw blood by Russert, the dynamics didn't change in the race. Clinton remains the tough front-runner who Obama and Edwards fail to attack with any success, while the rest of the field remains unconvincing as presidential candidates.