Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton shined in the presidential debate on Thursday night, as the leading Democratic candidates traded their sharpest barbs to date.
Biden outlined the most specific foreign policy agenda, advocating a reduction of Pakistan's military funding to force fair elections, and a new focus on eliciting support of the Pakistani middle class to counter militant extremism. He declared that he was the only candidate "on stage" to offer a regional plan since President Musharraf declared martial law, referring to a New Hampshire address last week, and stressed that unlike Obama and Clinton, he had actually voted to cut funding for the controversial Guantanamo prison. Then Biden, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, showed voters his commitment to confront the Bush Doctrine, recounting how he "personally" warned the President that an attack on Iran without congressional authorization would lead to impeachment.
Clinton, who had struggled to counter some attacks in the last debate, held strong the entire evening. She assailed Obama for failing to "step up" on universal health care and challenged Edwards' record on the issue from the 2004 Campaign. Then, casting herself as the true Democratic fighter in the ring, Clinton chided Edwards for adopting mud-slinging tactics "right out of the Republican playbook." It worked. Obama was overshadowed for much of the debate, only finding his voice near the end while discussing Iran and habeas corpus. Edwards' arguments showed some strain under pressure. He questioned Clinton's honesty and record as a "Corporate Democrat," but then assured the audience that his criticisms were not "personal."
Given Obama's sluggish performance, it's striking to see that he actually spoke more than any other candidate (18 minutes). This was the kind of performance that might give a campaign manager heartburn: a speaker who sounds worse in a small field, when the audience hears extended remarks. Yet CNN was still touting an "Obama-Clinton Slugfest" when the debate ended, and the emerging conventional wisdom, as Chuck Todd explains, is that Thursday night "will be known as the debate that seemed to sharpen the contrast between Clinton and Obama and create a gap between the big two and everyone else."
The gap for the "big two" is nothing new, of course, and it has little to do with debate performances. It's based on celebrity, fundraising and media attention, which reinforce each other in an autocatalytic political process that has left serious and more seasoned candidates in the dust. The media may be so beholden to this story about "the big two" -- remember when it was three? -- that what candidates actually do at debates will not be allowed to get in the way. But for voters who actually listened on Thursday, Joe Biden offered a bold and specific alternative foreign policy for the United States.