Debate Tactics


Hillary Clinton cautioned opponents in the Democrats' most recent debate against “throwing mud,” sounding very much like Br'er Rabbit who begged, "Please don't throw me in the briar patch." Time is running out for Senator Clinton's six foes to wake up to the fact that their tactics play right into her hands.

The notion of "going on the offensive" by "taking the fight to Hillary," is just bad strategy. Egged on by media and presumably encouraged by advisors, top contenders Barack Obama and John Edwards have fired wildly at Senator Clinton in recent debates, wounding only their own chances.

After Senator Clinton took a commanding lead in most polls, the tactic in debates should have been to ignore her. Instead, Senators Edwards and Obama have used valuable face time to challenge her, with predictably negative results.

For one thing, every direct attack on Senator Clinton forces the moderator to give her time to respond. In the last debate, this allowed her to deliver three or four separate answers before candidates Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich had spoken even once.

Second, unless the challengers can conjure up some new and unexpected attack on the New York Senator, there is no benefit in lobbing criticism for which she is fully rehearsed. Invariably, her carefully crafted rebuttal is allowed to stand as the last word on the subject.

Third, the public, as confirmed by the Las Vegas audience, doesn't particularly like negative politics, at least not in these settings. The boos directed at Senators Edwards and Obama, although behavior CNN should have discouraged from the outset, trumped any good points the challengers may have been making.

Instead of urging their candidates to take the fight to Senator Clinton, campaign aides for the challengers should be taking the fight to the networks. There is no reasonable explanation for giving Senator Clinton the center-stage position at every debate except that it makes good television. By consistently placing her with three opponents on each side, the networks are insuring that she is in the middle – literally and figuratively – of each discussion, and most camera shots.

The fact that Mrs. Clinton is the “frontrunner” in polls doesn’t justify giving her a place of honor at every debate. Nor, for that matter, is it equitable to always ask her the first question, as was the case again in Las Vegas, not to mention also giving her the evening’s final question in the form of the ultimate softball, “Do you prefer diamonds or pearls?”

Whatever happened to flipping coins to determine positions on stage and order of questions? CNN’s producers must be convinced that viewers would tune away in droves if the first question were to be asked of, say, Senator Joe Biden, who appropriately mocked the process in Las Vegas. “I want you to weigh in,” said moderator Wolfe Blitzer after many painful minutes. “Don’t do it,” said Senator Biden. “Don’t make me speak!”

A few weeks earlier in Philadelphia, the debate’s first question was actually for Senator Obama. It came from NBC’s Brian Williams who asked how he and Senator Clinton “differed.” Mr. Williams then turned to Senator Clinton for her “rebuttal.” The next question was for Senator Edwards from Tim Russert who wanted to know if there was anything he cared to say about Senator Clinton. That was followed by another rebuttal from Mrs. Clinton, after which Mr. Russert had a new question for…Senator Clinton.

“Enough about Hillary,” the comedian would say. “Let’s talk about Bill Richardson. Governor, what do you think of Senator Clinton?”

© Peter Funt

Index of Previous Columns