LOS ANGELES – So who won?
Won what, you’re asking. For most Americans, it’s a long way to November 2008, but for the candidates, the campaign is in full swing.
The first debate is history. The pundits and pundettes are weighing in. So what if it was as boring as a college baseball game between two schools you didn’t go to. So what if the format stank, half the answers seemed canned and the most interesting guy was the former senator from Alaska whom no one under 40 has ever heard of and who has no chance of winning.
For those of us who live for this stuff, there was plenty to see.
The first imperative in debates, particularly for frontrunners, is the political version of the Hippocratic oath. Instead of "do no harm," we say "make no mistakes."
The moments people remember in debates are the sharp one-liners and the horrible flubs. If you can get off a memorable one-liner, like Reagan’s "there you go again" or Bentsen's "you’re no Jack Kennedy," that’s great.
But whatever you do, don’t mess up, as Gerald Ford did when he freed Poland from the Communists or Michael Dukakis did when he answered the question about the rape and murder of his wife by reaffirming his opposition to the death penalty.
Every candidate wants to move up as a result of a debate, but for those who are in front coming in, the most important thing is not to move down. Frontrunners are generally best off when nothing happens in debates.
Second-tier candidates have a different agenda. For them, debates offer the opportunity to appear on the same stage, at the same level, as the frontrunners. They need to use that opportunity to make something happen, or they’ll leave the debate with as little support as they had coming in, which is what happened in South Carolina.
Richardson and Dodd and Biden were all just fine, but just fine doesn’t do much for you when you’re in the second tier. The depth of experience these three men bring to the contest was clear in their answers and, if anything, it made the three less experienced frontrunners seem just that.
But neither the New Mexico governor nor the two senators with the most time in office said or did anything that ignited the sparks you need to move up in the hierarchy of the race, which inevitably becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hillary and Barack and John Edwards will look better when Dodd and Biden and Richardson are off the stage. And that's where the latter three will be, much sooner than they'd like, unless they can ignite something.
As for Edwards, the former trial lawyer known for his oratorical brilliance didn’t get a chance to show it off or didn’t use the chances he had. Edwards managed to get in his Southern roots, his working-class background and his apology for voting for the war in Iraq; it wasn’t that he did anything wrong.
If he were in first place going in, he would be in first place going out. But he isn’t. He’s in third, and nothing he said in South Carolina changed that.
The two people with the most to lose in the debate were the two who entered with the most support, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. While Friday morning's polls, at least of South Carolina Democrats, gave the edge to Obama, that’s not how I see it. Hillary made no mistakes. Obama did.
Asked about America's best friends in the world, Obama waxed on about NATO and our European allies before looking east to Japan. I'm not a foreign policy expert, but I've been around debates for decades and it was clear that Obama didn't get that this was the Israel question.
He didn't get that people like me, voters and donors, were waiting to hear the word "Israel" in a way that Japanese Americans were not. Japan doesn't live under constant threats; Israel does. Japanese Americans don't worry about Japan's survival in the way Jewish Americans worry about Israel. Obama's answer, in my book, was the biggest mistake of the debate.
Even when prompted by Brian Williams, who followed up by pointing out that Obama had neglected to mention Israel, and reminded him of his comment that "no one had suffered more than the Palestinian people," Obama still didn't get it right.
Sure, he said that Israel is an important ally, but his clarification of his "poor Palestinians" comment only left him further in the hole. His point, he emphasized, was that no one had suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failures in Palestinian leadership.
That’s not exactly how I see it, or how many Jewish Americans see it. I don’t think suffering is a contest in which special recognition goes to those who have paid the highest price. The right answer is that there has been plenty of suffering on both sides.
The Palestinians may be suffering more in the sense that their standard of living is lower, but whose fault is that? Talk to any Israeli family who has lost a friend or family member to Palestinian terror –- and that means any family in Israel –- and, believe me, they won't cede the prize for the most suffering to the Palestinians.
And they will point out, rightly, I think, that it is the Palestinians and not the Jews who have chosen these terrible leaders and remained loyal to them. Doesn't that count for something?
The overnight polls of South Carolina voters showed that Obama "won" the debate, with Hillary second and Edwards third, but that will be soon forgotten. By the time anyone votes in South Carolina, there will have been dozens of these encounters, not to mention results from the earlier contests in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire.
The problem for Obama is that his failure to be more supportive of Israel will not be forgotten by those for whom this is a dealbreaker, which includes not only a fair share of Democratic donors, but also a significant voting bloc in states like New York and Florida. And that could come back to haunt him.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.
A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership.
Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.