Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Vegas Debate and the Framing of the Campaign

In last night's anodyne debate in Las Vegas, a truce between the Obama and Clinton camps on the subject of race was observed. Whether that truce signified more from the Clinton camp than mere posturing and whether they intended to continue to use black surrogates to press the attack remains to be seen. What was noteworthy, however, was the extent to which Obama not only declined the role of the aggrieved party, but forthrightly took responsibility and expressed regret, even for the actions of a staffer:
Tim Russert: In terms of accountability, Senator Obama, Senator Clinton on Sunday told me that the Obama campaign had been pushing this storyline. And, true enough, your press secretary in South Carolina -- four pages of alleged comments made by the Clinton people about the issue of race.

In hindsight, do you regret pushing this story?

Sen. Obama: Well, not only in hindsight, but going forward. I think that, as Hillary said, our supporters, our staff get overzealous. They start saying things that I would not say. And it is my responsibility to make sure that we're setting a clear tone in our campaign, and I take that responsibility very seriously, which is why I spoke yesterday and sent a message in case people were not clear that what we want to do is make sure that we focus on the issues. (MSNBC January 15 Debate Transcript)
A trenchant analysis of Obama's notable turning of the other cheek is provided by Noam Scheiber ( "The Vegas Debate"):
For the last week, you could sense the campaign obsessives becoming increasingly pessimistic about Obama's chances. This happened for two reasons. First, an extensive discussion of race seemed to force Obama into the role of "black candidate." Second, Hillary's questions about the steadfastness of Obama's war opposition made him look like a typical equivocating politician. The thinking was that Hillary would win if the race became a competition between a "white candidate" and a "black candidate," or a race between two conventional candidates. Worse, Hillary seemed able to impose these frames on the race almost at will. If Obama ignored the charges, he risked having them stick. And if he engaged, he risked becoming exactly what he wanted to avoid--either an aggrieved African American or a bickering pol.

That's the way it looked until the last day or so, in any case. What Obama demonstrated last night is that he's just as capable of imposing his own frame on the race. Each time he took a question about race or the recent bickering, he responded with his trademark uplift and forced Hillary to respond in kind.

Granted, the Clintonites were clearly ready to end the ugly skirmish themselves. But I got the sense there was much more happy talk than they preferred. If this becomes a contest to see who can be more unifying and high-minded, Hillary will have problems....

Obama was magnanimous and winning. Hillary was clenched and grudging. The comparison wasn't especially flattering to her.
In coming weeks, we shall see which camp successfully imposes their "frame" on this campaign.
|| headland, 9:00 AM


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