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ABC-Facebook Primary Debates in New Hampshire

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

ABC-Facebook Republican and Democratic Debates in New Hampshire

On Saturday night, the ABC network held two back-to-back debates in Manchester, New Hampshire, in conjunction with Facebook, the social networking website that is often criticized for enabling data mining and use of its pages by law enforcement agencies despite its Terms of Use specifying that “the website is available for your personal, noncommercial use only.”

The format was supposed to be that for the first 45 minutes the moderator—ABC’s network evening news anchor Charles Gibson—would pose three broad topics to the candidates and they would have a dinner-table discussion amongst themselves about them, asking questions of each other. Scary! So scary that the candidates and the host quickly reverted to the same old, same old format of the moderator asking questions and the candidates shouting at each other when they disagreed. For the final 15 minutes of the hour-long debates, Scott Spradling, the political director of the local ABC station, WMUR, joined Gibson on the stage and the pair of them posed questions in the usual format.

::Most groan-inducing moment::
If I had a dollar for every time a Republican candidate said “greatest nation” or “radical Islam”, I’d be well on my way to buying a barrel of oil. By the end of that debate, which was first, I thought that would be the hands-down winner. But the winner is Hillary Clinton for her response to John Edwards’ claim that every time anyone tries to make a change in the way Washington deals with lobbyists, the status quo comes down on them like a ton of bricks.

“I think having the first woman president is a huge change,“she said, “with consequences across our country and the world.” What consequences? Shock, horror, that the US has finally caught up with what other nations have been doing for decades: electing women leaders? Who cares? Judging by the applause her comment drew, it seems her supporters care. Great! Let’s elect a leader on the basis of their gender. That makes as much sense as electing a leader on the basis of their race.

::Biggest difference between the two debates::
Although Gibson succeeded in forcing the Republican candidates to make some kind of statement about where they stood on Bush’s policies by making that one of the topics, it was the Democrats who spent the most time on him. So much time, that it wasn’t like they were debating with each other but were debating with the President instead. If the most strident way you define yourself is in terms of someone who isn’t even in your party, how does that help anyone decide who is going to be the best candidate for your party’s nomination? The November debates between the Republican and Democratic nominees aren’t going to be about Bush.

::Another difference between the two debates::
The criteria for who was invited on the debates was that they received 5 percent in any ABC-recognized national or state poll. That meant that Ron Paul got into the Republican debate and Dennis Kucinich didn’t get into the Democratic one. As Kucinich said in an earlier interview with journalist Bill Moyers, “How can you have a debate if you don’t have a voice to challenge all the others?” To be fair, why doesn’t Kucinich have 5 percent support? Is it because he can’t gain traction because he can’t get media coverage, or is it because he wouldn’t get enough support even if he did?

Despite his being laughed at by the other candidates, Ron Paul got to put his points across and widen the scope of the debate. He is especially strong about economic reform. The Facebook on-line polls referred to after the conclusion of each debate showed that the economy was the top concern by far of those who responded, a result that was helped no doubt by the media coverage earlier in the week of Bush meeting with his Working Group on Financial Markets, which is chaired by Secretary of the Treasury Paulson. The most-played news clip from that meeting was of Bush saying “we can’t take economic growth for granted.” The full on-line transcript lists the signs that Bush says indicate why that is so. The Facebook results may even have been helped by the trickery that’s possible using on-line polls.

::Most significant omission::
If Edwards managed to rile Clinton about change enough for her to shoot herself in the foot, she also managed to rile him enough that he dropped a word he had carefully chosen earlier in the debate when he said he never took money “from special-interest PACs”. (At the federal level, political [action] committees are a legal entity receiving contributions or making expenditures in excess of $1,000 for the purpose of influencing a federal election.) Edwards later told Clinton testily that he never took money “from PACs.” Not true.

In a December advisory opinion (AO2007-31) issued in response to a request from the Edwards campaign, the Federal Election Commission said that funds collected on the campaign’s behalf by ActBlue doesn’t qualify for federal matching funds. ActBlue is a website that isn’t formed around any candidate or issue in particular—a “non-connected political committee”. Its purpose is to allow small contributors to go online and use a credit card to make a donation to whomever they want, in the process also collecting reporting-related information required by election finance laws. The money and information is then forwarded to the relevant campaign. Edwards used ActBlue before their own website was up and running. The Matching Payment Act specifically excludes “funds received by a political committee which are transferred to that committee from another committee.”

The omission is significant not because Edwards said something that wasn’t true, but because of what it reveals about election finance laws in the US. No-one is likely to take him up on it, because that would lead to a discussion about where every campaign’s money is coming from and offer him an opportunity to put his anti-special interest case even more strongly. Federal matching funds are only available to candidates who agree to limit the size of contribution from any individual donor to $250 and also limit the amounts his or her campaign spends.

The only presidential candidates who have agreed to be bound by campaign finance limitations are Republicans McCain, Tancredo and Hunter, and Democrats Edwards, Dodd, Biden and Kucinich. (Hunter, by the way, just won a delegate in the Republican caucus held in Wyoming on Saturday.)

::Most overlooked wardrobe change::
Although it’s not strictly something seen during the NH debates, except that the subject of Clinton’s jacket came up during the Democratic one, wardrobe matters. Mitt Romney’s choice of a sweater instead of a suit at all the New Hampshire campaign events seems to indicate his minders took to heart one of Mike Huckabee’s comments noted in media coverage of the campaigning in Iowa. Huckabee said that he thought people would rather vote for someone who looked like their fellow worker than like the guy who laid them off.

::Most interesting ad buy in the commercial breaks::
The debates were sponsored commercially by Bayer aspirin and Florida orange juice, and in California ads also ran in support of and against the referenda on Indian gaming compacts that were put on the February 5 ballot here by Governor Schwarzenegger. The “vote Yes” ad was the one that features the governor, and it played more times than the ad from the “vote No” folks.

But the more interesting choice of ads was the one a burger chain here in the West selected from among their many witty, often totally un-PC commercials. The ad played hasn’t been seen recently and isn’t on their website’s current playlist. It features a surfer dude sitting alone in his truck with a big drippy burger in his hand and his foot on the dashboard, which has a hula figurine sitting on it. The voice-over says: “When a guy can’t get his wahine to put some hala kahiki all over his 'i'o pipi i wili 'ia, he’s gotta go someplace else” and the guy whacks her on the head so she does a hula. It played during both debates. Why is that interesting? Well, how many people who identify with the guy in the truck were likely to be at home on a Saturday night watching political debates? It’s on YouTube here along with an explanation of what the words mean.

::Most bizarre camera shot::
Hands-down—literally—this goes to the extreme close-up of Obama writing with his left hand. All the candidates made notes as others were speaking, but the director of the TV presentation seemed to be overly fascinated with Obama’s note-taking. It was featured more than once. Was this some kind of subtle way of saying he’s sinister—a word that derives from the Latin for “on the left side, unlucky, inauspicous”?

::Rule of thumb winner::
I have a theory that one reason Bill Clinton is so popular is that he has unusually long hands and long thumbs. I don’t see that it’s any less valid than making unconscious decisions based on the closeness of a person’s eyes to each other or the proportions of their face, so let’s go with thumb-length indicating electability. The winner is Obama. (Thanks for the close-ups, ABC!)

::Most suck-up-to-one-candidate moment::
As I said, the director of the local ABC station WMUR, Scott Spradling, was brought in for the final fifteen minutes to pose questions to each set of candidates and in the Democratic debate took the opportunity to reveal where his support lies. “I’d be happy to report,” he said to Senator Clinton, that in a recent poll the University of New Hampshire Survey Center had taken “the experience vs. change debate seems to be sinking in.” “Happy” to report? Isn’t it your job to be neutral? He did Clinton no favors by saying that, and following up immediately with a question on the “likeability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more” because his preamble just came across as patronizing and her coy response to the question came across as downright embarrassing.

The network further tried to save her from the “unlikeability” argument by choosing to replay—in slow motion, to be sure the viewers saw it—the image of her winking at one of the other candidates when they were all on stage together in between the two debates. ABC could have just as easily chosen to show in slo-mo the shot of her shooting daggers at John Edwards when they shook hands at the end of the Democratic debate. If Clinton comes in third in New Hampshire, it will be a blow not just for the Washington status quo but for the blatant use by network television stations—who get use of the public airwaves for free—to advance the agenda of their parent companies, which are some of the biggest lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

::Some final thoughts on Huckabee and Obama::
This is unrelated to Saturday’s debate but is prompted by commentary that came after their Iowa caucus wins. Pundits are writing Huckabee off in New Hampshire because of his connection with evangelical Christians. But they’re ignoring the fact that he is a strong supporter of the right to carry guns, and that is one right that voters in NH value highly. One commentator also remarked that having Chuck Norris campaign with him in NH would be a hindrance rather than the help it might have been in Iowa. Norris isn’t there for the celebrity factor; he actually represents the kind of lifestyle that many voters in New Hampshire have themselves adopted.

As for Obama, what was the implication of CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer comparing the atmosphere surrounding the Obama campaign to the atmosphere that surrounded John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties? Schieffer jump-started his reporting career in Texas, when he happened to be the person who took a phone call to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from a woman who wanted a ride to Dallas because her son, Lee Harvey Oswald, had just been arrested for shooting John F. Kennedy.

The full transcript of the New Hampshire debates are here:


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