Debating the Debate Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debated in Ohio last night. Where did the verbal sparring leave them ahead of the latest contest.
NPR logo

Debating the Debate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Debating the Debate

Debating the Debate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


That debate last night, the one in Ohio, that may have been the last political debate of this presidential primary campaign. Slate's chief political correspondent John Dickerson is with us.

John, welcome back to the show. And Hillary Clinton was trying to come out swinging, trying to be the fighter last night. Here's an exchange early on with Barack Obama over healthcare.

(Soundbite of debate)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): And that's what I intend to provide...

Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Moderator): Senator...

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): About 20 percent - about 20 percent of the people who are uninsured have the means to buy insurance. They're often young people who think they're immortal.

Senator OBAMA: Which is why I cover them...

Senator CLINTON: Except when the illness or the accident strikes. And what Senator Obama has said, that then once you get to the hospital you'll be forced to buy insurance. I don't think that's a good idea. We ought to plan for it...

Senator OBAMA: With respect...

Senator CLINTON: ...and we've got to make sure we cover everyone. That is the only way to get...

Senator OBAMA: With respect...

Senator CLINTON: universal healthcare coverage.

CHADWICK: You know, John, I've heard a lot about healthcare coverage from both candidates over the campaign, but I watched this last night and I thought this is getting weird. I mean, they were back and forth. I'm this, you're that. I'm this, you're that. And it seemed as though Senator Clinton had seized control of the debate from the moderator, Brian Williams of NBC. And on and on and on they went. It was very strange.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON ( It went on for 16 minutes and neither candidate wanted to give an inch. And it was a substantive debate, although I suspect by the end of it anybody who was confused was probably more confused as they debated which plan was more universal, which had mandates, which would take money from people out of their paychecks.

The question from a political standpoint, though, is that Barack Obama was not supposed to be a very good debater, and healthcare was supposed to be Hillary Clinton's issue. And you know, most observers who looked at this thought basically he fought her toe to toe. He basically matched her. And since Clinton had to really make him look clueless on the issue, she didn't do that in that long exchange.


I'm wondering if you read Alessandra Stanley's column today in the New York Times and in general the feeling out there that the press is a little too hard on Hillary Clinton and last night that Tim Russert really threw her the tougher questions, made her pronounce the new president of Russia's name, which she kind of got out, and you know, that she was basically on the defensive answering really tough questions last night.

Mr. DICKERSON: I think that's a fair analysis. I think there are a couple of things. One, it's not just Hillary Clinton who gets the pop questions. You'll remember in the Republican debate Chris Matthews asked a pop question as well. So this happens occasionally in debates. Hillary Clinton has a longer record and has more to farm in that record than Barack Obama.

But I still think, given that, Obama still had the easier night of it. He didn't get off totally scot-free, but Hillary Clinton did seem to have the tougher moment with the moderators, and she also, unfortunately, was the victim of a bad piece of tape. They ran an excerpt from one of her speeches when they didn't mean to. It wasn't a terribly favorable excerpt. And then basically the moderator turned to Barack Obama and let him have a kind of free shot in responding to this misplayed clip. So it was kind of all working against her last night.

BRAND: Hmm. Well, let's turn to the Republicans. And yesterday a talk show host, radio talk show host by the name of Bill Cunningham introduced John McCain at an event and repeatedly used Barack Obama's middle name, Hussein. And John McCain then has come out and has said that that's not OK and has criticized Bill Cunningham for doing that. But is this foreshadowing? If Obama is the nominee, is this what we're going to be seeing a lot of during the general?

Mr. DICKERSON: We'll be seeing a fair amount of it. We see this kind of ugliness in general elections anyway. There are two things at play here. One, candidates have gotten a lot better at taking umbrage. And so Obama, we saw earlier this week, took immediate, fast and rapid umbrage at a picture that was leaked onto the Drudge Report that supposedly may have come from the Clinton campaign. Nobody stuck around long enough to figure out if it really did. He just took immediate umbrage, saying how dare they do this.

McCain has his own interest in taking umbrage at this radio talk show host, because, one, he was in a situation earlier in the campaign where he didn't speak out about a supporter who said something unfavorable about Hillary Clinton, and two, McCain is looking to go for those independent voters in the middle and basically outdo Obama on the kind of classiness and new kind of politics. And this was an incidence where he could essentially say, you know, here I am taking the high road and trying to box Obama in a little bit, because Obama's Democratic allies are attacking McCain with some very tough language.

CHADWICK: John Dickerson, chief political correspondent at, a guest again on DAY TO DAY. Thanks, John.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thanks, Alex.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.