John Edwards Won Tonight

[Note: See my original Daily Kos post here.]

Boy, what a disappointment.

As a longtime (and still) Obama supporter, I was ecstatic when he won the Iowa caucuses and delivered a speech that blew those of his rivals out of the water.

Sure, I had some slight concerns about Obama’s statements after landing in New Hampshire. He shouldn’t, for example, repeatedly and overtly ask a state that is proud of its independence to “do what Iowa did” in voting for him.

And why even assume the mantle of frontrunner, declaring that if New Hampshire votes for him then “I will be the next president”? That statement confirmed the Clinton talking point that this primary is now about Obama, when he could have remained the insurgent for one more cycle by instead hanging the “inevitable” mantra on Hillary and challenging New Hampshire not to do Washington’s bidding.

But anyway, on to tonight’s debate.

First, the positives for Obama:

He was strong in the first half of the debate, when the focus was largely on foreign policy and health care. His positions came across as just as reasonable and thoughtful as the other candidates. And throughout the entire night (and with a major assist from Edwards), he kept Hillary from landing a blow and getting the withering sound bite she needs to shift momentum over the next three days.

But as the debate wore on, I became perturbed. Obama:

1) Got himself sandwiched in between the argument over whether change was the result of experience and hard work, or the result of an “epic fight” between us and them. During an entire stretch, Obama seemed to disappear altogether with Richardson.

2) Seemed weak, naive and, indeed, “academic” when, just after Edwards and Clinton staked out strong opposing positions on how to effect change, Obama provided a middling answer that spoke vaguely about how “words do matter” in achieving change.

3) Gave Clinton and Edwards a totally free pass on their votes to authorize the Iraq war. I almost screamed at my television for Obama to jump in when Clinton talked about how the election represented the end of George Bush’s blank check in Iraq. Obama had several chances to put both Clinton on the defensive by using her Iraq and Iran votes to invalidate her arguments of representing the right change from Bush. For reasons that mystify me, he chose not to.

I have no doubt that the media will continue a narrative of Obama vs. Clinton (with a passing mention to Edwards’s assist against Clinton). But there was, I think, a striking contrast drawn tonight between the change Edwards offers and that offered by Clinton. Obama was lost in the middle, surviving the debate but failing to draw a clear, compelling, nod-inducing contrast that would seal the case for a triumph on Tuesday.

I previously said that I will not vote for Edwards, and I hadn’t been compelled to reconsider before tonight’s debate. But I feel uncomfortable now, because for the first time Edwards’s argument (and Obama’s lack of a vigorous response) got to me, making me wonder for just a moment whether we were about to send the wrong candidate into the general election.

Maybe Obama was just tired and off his game. I hope that’s the case, because if he’s decided to coast and assume the voters are already sold based on his win in Iowa, he will lose. The media will still largely ignore Edwards, and Obama just might take New Hampshire anyway. But he needs to remember that, with his liabilities, he will have to vigorously sell himself every time he opens his mouth from now until November.

If Edwards proved one thing, it’s that he continues to drive the change debate and, contrary to what I said a few days ago, he needs to remain a significant part of this race. I have no doubt that if all of New Hampshire had seen this debate rather than hearing the media spin, the entire dynamic of the race would have changed. Who knows — maybe it still will.

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