Candidates debate
J. Scott Applewhite A/P photo for MSNBC

The Democratic presidential candidates held their first debate last night, and you can watch the video at MSNBC. I later watched the MSNBC crew show “highlights” and interview the candidates or their spokespeople. (Obama’s guy was personable; Wolfson came off, again, as arrogant and evasive — haven’t we had enough of that the last six years?) The initial reactions were subdued, trying to give credit to all the candidates, but by 10:30 p.m. (EDT), the MSNBC crew had unanimously concluded that Hillary Clinton did very well, coming off as “presidential,” and Pat Buchanan even compared her to Ronald Reagan, which I think he thought was a compliment! Others did less well, according to this crew. I was surprised/relieved that Hillary seemed less scripted than usual, and others more so, or just unprepared. Here are media reactions from Reuters, the New York Times and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza. FDLers were live blogging on emptywheel’s thread last night. Other blog reactions will be trickling in today; this from C&L.

I don’t like to watch candidate debates. They just make me nervous. More important, I think they tell us too much about how well scripted a candidate is and too little about how a person will inspire and unite the country or pick the right people to manage the government. What did we learn about George Bush from his first debate?

A debate format could, in theory, tell us something about a candidate’s depth of knowledge and understanding — Hilary seemed best when talking about health care — but with someone as superficial as Brian Williams, you’re just as likely to get a silly question (his question about whether Biden could give a short answer — “yes,” Biden deadpanned) — as a thoughtful one, and with only limited time for answers, there was little chance for a candidate to rephrase a weak question and turn it into an opportunity to say something meaningful. To do that you risk sounding “combative,” as when Gravel or Kucinich tried vainly to explain that our whole frame for thinking about issues is skewed.

The absurdity of using a debate as a means for picking presidents was illustrated by Howard Fineman’s analysis of the difference between Obama’s and Clinton’s responses to the terrorist attack question. Fineman observed that Obama didn’t use the word “retaliate” in his initial response, while Hillary did, so Obama spent the rest of the night trying to make up for not being “tough” enough. But Hillary’s response was ‘tough,” so Fineman concluded that she “settled the question about the Commander in Chief issue.” Buchanan would echo this analysis later. What gibberish. By this measure, George Bush and Dick Cheney, who have done more to undermine US influence, prestige and security interests than any Administration in our lifetimes, would obviously make a wonderful national security team.

A good answer is boring. What we need to know is how a candidate would analyze the nature of the threat and the efficacy and consequences of alternative response strategies. We’d want to know how he or she would harness the government to find and implement a wise answer while engaging the country in the conversation about the nature of the threat, what must be done about it, and what sacrifices that might entail. None of that happened after 9/11, but George and Dick sure sounded tough, and that, Howard, is why there have been 3300 US troops and scores of thousands of Iraqis killed in a senseless, brutal and unnecessary war. Of course, no televised debate is ever going to elicit such a response for fear of the mindless instant analysis by the nation’s media.

I’m generally distrustful of most presidential candidates. Almost by definition, they seem to have more ambition to win the presidency than they have wisdom to be president. I also have this quaint belief that people who are genuine leaders reveal their leadership qualities over time by how they go about doing what they do. They don’t announce they’re “leaders” or apply to be “leaders,” and running a campaign to convince people to vote for you is not a good way to prove you’re a leader. Instead, genuine leaders prove themselves by how they perform day in, day out. I’ve watched Nancy Pelosi and she comes across as a leader. That’s why the frightened right is making every effort to tear her down; a true leader that actually sounds reasonable and intelligent and mature and doesn’t scare the hell out of all of us is a threat to the Bush Presidency. If the American people saw her as a weak, ineffectual leader, the righties wouldn’t make such a fuss about her going to Syria. Kennedy has been an incredibly effective legislative leader for decades, but would we say the same of other Senators who’ve coveted the presidency? Feingold has proven himself a moral leader again and again, often standing alone only to be proved right later. Waxman and Leahy are showing real leadership skills in their oversight roles. Al Gore has become an international leader on a crucial issue of global importance, and when we needed a statesman to speak forcefully and clearly on the lawlessness of the Bush/Cheney regime, he rose to the occasion and we all cheered. We can easily see leadership qualities in these people. We saw some good Democrats on the stage last night, but do we see these candidates as our party’s true leaders?

I have some fairly ambitious expectations for our next President. We desperately need a President who not only understands how fundamentally wrong it was to think primarily in “tough” retaliatory terms in response to 9/11 but who also has the political courage and rhetorical skills to explain that convincingly to the American people. I expect our next President to have a deep understanding of how the Bush/Cheney regime betrayed the country’s most fundamental principles, and sense how important it is to recover what we’ve lost.

Americans are angry, deeply angry at the Bush/Cheney regime. If we are to regain the promise of the American experiment, and regain respect and credibility in the world, the next President will need to be wise enough to channel the nation’s anger about that betrayal in a constructive way, and this will not be easy. He or she will need to explain to the American people that we came close to losing our country to a radical group that included extreme ideologues, outright crooks and religious charlatans, that the moral corruption invaded virtually every aspect of the federal government, and that if the country is to regain its stature and confront any of the major problems we are facing, the first priority will be to clean house — to root out the corruption and ideologues. And part of the moral corruption was the willingness to pander to religious extremism and let it gain an undue influence over government. Where is the leader who can both clean house and call out the scoundels, and then reunite the country?

So I wonder if others saw and heard genuine leaders on the stage last night who are up to the task. What did we learn from the debate?



John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley