How Barack Obama Lost the Debate — and Whether It Matters

Obama and Clinton
Photo: AFP/Getty Images


Barack Obama, this is your life! So went the first 45 minutes of last night's Democratic debate, as the ABC moderators dredged up old gaffes and shady acquaintances in what sometimes seemed like an attempt to make Obama admit that he hates America, for associating with Reverend Wright, for not wearing a flag pin, or for knowing a onetime member of the Weather Underground. As Obama repeated throughout the night, that's the nature of "gotcha" politics. Clinton briefly got hers too, on the Bosnia flap, but the consensus opinion is that Obama didn't fare well last night — though there's disagreement on whether ultimately, it will actually matter.

• Mark Halperin gives Obama a B+, saying he had a "surly, tepid night" but "he still emerged stalwart and in the lead." Clinton, who "showed herself to be a tough workhorse with a clear-cut agenda and can-do assurance," gets a B. [Page/Time]

• Jim Geraghty thinks Obama should have thrown in the towel after the first 45 minutes, saying he looked "terrible" and was damaged by his answers to Reverend Wright and William Ayers questions. [Campaign Spot/National Review]

• Chuck Todd believes Obama was pummeled by both Clinton and the ABC moderators, getting rattled early on and never recovering. [First Read/MSNBC]

• Mark Ambinder doesn't think Obama could have fared any worse last night, facing tough personal questions from the moderators and lacking the fight that his supporters love to see. [Atlantic]

• Andrew Sullivan calls it Obama's "worst performance on national television," that he was "wilting, painfully" under a "series of attacks on his integrity, faith, patriotism, decency and honesty." [Atlantic]

• John Dickerson also notes the difficulties Obama had responding to his associations with Reverend Wright and William Ayers, saying, "It's hard to be full of hope when you're justifying your relationship — however tenuous — to domestic terrorists." However, since Obama seemed to escape Bittergate mostly unscathed, and since nothing last night was as bad as Bittergate, there's a chance none of his debate problems will matter. [Slate]

• Hugh Hewitt says Obama was apologetic and constantly on the defensive, even though the moderators didn't "press him beyond a follow-up or two" on Wright and Ayers. [Town Hall]

• Walter Shapiro thinks that though "this was not an evening that will shimmer in Obama's memory book," Obama won the debate because there was still no moment that would "magically transform the contours of the race." [Salon]

• Reid Wilson calls the debate a draw — Obama, forced into a defensive posture, did nothing to change his fortunes in Pennsylvania, and Clinton, though "more humorous and more detailed in her policy discussions," failed to deliver a knockout blow. [Politics Nations/RealClearPolitics]

• Jennifer Skalka says Obama "tended to ramble" and "did not have a terrific night," while Clinton wasn't "stellar" but avoided "barking" at Obama, instead letting the moderators do it for her. [Hotline/National Journal]

• David Brooks gives Clinton a B and Obama a D+, but criticizes both candidates for making irresponsible pledges not to raise taxes on the middle class and to pull out of Iraq no matter what. [NYT]

• Chris Cillizza says that given the onslaught, it would have been impossible for Obama to "shine" during the first half of the debate, but that he managed to survive. Clinton showed her "mastery" of the issues, but it may not matter because voters already knew about that. All in all, the choice between idealism (Obama) and pragmatism (Clinton) "crystallized" in the debate. [Fix/WP] —Dan Amira

Earlier: The Long View: Bittergate’s Lasting Effects

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.