Game, Set & Match

Whatever you think of Barack Obama, the guy has got game. Three times within the first 32 minutes of his debate with Hillary Clinton last night, Obama found a new way to say, "As the President of the United States, I will..." After Tim Russert obnoxiously tried to pin down Clinton on a pledge to withdraw from NAFTA within six months, and she declined, Barack inserted the evening’s first moment of graciousness, saying, "On this one I think Sen. Clinton is right." The first topic of the night, health care, is an issue on which Clinton has mounted her most effective charge against Obama, claiming his plan would not really achieve the long-time Democratic goal of universal insurance. Obama dragged Clinton into a 20 minute discussion of policy minutiae, and discussion she was all too willing to indulge, but which had the effect of blurring the differences between the candidates. If the exchange fascinated you, you are a wonk. Most viewers probably started wondering what they would wear to work the next morning. I used to think Hillary was a great debater. Her answers are fluent. She mentions a variety of data in her answers that show how well she knows the policy details. But last night her answers seemed very set. She repeats the phrase "quality, affordable health care" with such regularity and always with the same intonation, she dulls her own passion on her signature issue. Same with the phrase "my experience over 35 years" – after you have heard the words the same set way three times in a row, you stop paying attention, you tune it out. Hillary tried several different lines of attack against Obama, but that is the problem. Her campaign has trotted out so many different attacks in the past few days, none of them have had enough time to develop any legs. When she criticized him for failing to hold an oversight hearing with the congressional subcommittee he chairs, it was inside baseball to the nth degree. She complained that she always gets the first question in debates. More inside baseball. Hillary was combative tonight, and she needs to present herself as a fighter, but she needed to make the people of Ohio think she was fighting for them, not for herself. All the inside baseball talk did not help her at all. Clinton looked small at times when she needed to look presidential. "There is a difference between rejecting and denouncing," she proclaimed. Is there? Barack conceded the point. So, who won the match? Easy. Barack. He had the momentum going in. She needed to stop and reverse that momentum. That did not happen last night. Michael Sean Winters

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