Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton left the Tuesday, Feb. 26, televised debate in Cleveland just about where they entered it: with Obama riding a double-digit lead over Clinton nationally among Democratic voters as the favorite for the presidential nomination and with both candidates running neck and neck in the vital Ohio and Texas primaries next Tuesday, March 4, when Rhode Island and Vermont also hold contests.
Clinton desperately needs an Obama blunder or mistake between now and then to climb back into the race. It did not come in yesterday's debate.
Obama, as he has in recent debates, started slowly and finished strongly. He displayed quick, extemporaneous wit and a sense of cool – stylistically, reminiscent of Sen. John F. Kennedy's debate persona in 1960 against his more experienced but less articulate rival, Vice President Richard Nixon. Particularly important: Obama more than held his own with Clinton on foreign policy/national security issues.
In the end, it was Clinton who was forced to concede that her Senate vote on behalf of the Iraq intervention was mistaken – the first time she had conceded that point, although all other Democratic aspirants (Dodd, Biden, Edwards, et. al.) had done so long since.
Both Obama and Clinton dug a big hole for themselves on trade policy. Responding to a question by NBC's Tim Russert, both committed themselves to renouncing the NAFTA Treaty, in its present form, and to renegotiating the terms with Canada and Mexico. Thus, seeking primary votes in rustbelt Ohio, they took a position which will be untenable should either win the presidency.
As supporters of multilateralism and international cooperation, both Obama and Clinton know that there is no basis for such a renunciation and that neither Canada nor Mexico would accept a renegotiation of terms that, in fact, already favor the United States, which, as the largest and strongest partner in NAFTA, has been a marginal winner by its present terms. The labor and environmental standards, which both candidates say they want strengthened, were in fact a late add-on to NAFTA intended to pacify unions opposing it.
Such standards had never been a part of prior trade deals and, in fact, were invented by fading industrial unions as a means of blocking foreign goods from countries which they knew could never meet such standards (i.e., almost any country not at the level of the American economy's development). Insistence on them has blocked progress in the more important Doha global trade negotiation in the World Trade Organization.
No more debates will be held between now and next Tuesday. Clinton can be expected to throw whatever punches she has during that period. She made a strange, peevish reaction toward her debate questioners early on last night, implying they were stacking debate formats against her. She will have to shed that mindset over the next week and campaign strongly and with dignity. She will have a future beyond next Tuesday, either as nominee or as a national party leader and possible future presidential nominee, and must take care not to diminish herself.
It still is early in the game but my instincts tell me Sen. John McCain, the putative Republican nominee, will be a far weaker candidate than he now appears. We can discuss that later. For now, let us watch the two heavyweight Democratic finalists enter the final rounds of their battle, which, in the end, I expect Obama to win.