Obama's Dilemma: To Debate Or Not Debate

When writing a story about a disputed issue - should, for example, Barack Obama debate Hillary Clinton before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries -- a reporter often has a point of view, and sets about getting "quotes" from a variety of sources subtly tilted to arrive at the outcome he or she is seeking.

In this case, I am that reporter, and I believe that Obama should debate. It would be a gamble --a lousy performance would set the stage for possible defeat in November, or a loss of the nomination--but a win, especially in a wide open Lincoln-Douglas type debate, would stem the bleeding.

With that in mind, I set about making a series of inquiries. The initial results were not good.

First, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute commented:

"I love the idea of a debate without moderators. But I can't see that it is in his interest to debate before Indiana and NC. This is his last best chance to end the nomination struggle relatively quickly. There is no real upside for him to debate now." (Italics mine.)

Tom Mann of Brookings, a competitor of Ornstein's for top dog in the commentariat, was even more declarative:

"No. He has nothing to gain from additional debates with Clinton. His strategy to connect his broad campaign message to alleviating the problems confronting ordinary Americans and to begin his campaign against McCain makes sense to me."

The same message came from my buddies in the GOP. Alex Castellanos, media mastermind in the campaigns of George W. Bush and Jesse Helms, said:

"Senator Clinton is winning the 4th quarter, but Senator Obama is still ahead for the game. Also, every time he touches the ball, it's a turnover: When is the last good press day Barack Obama had? Dean Smith of [basketball coach] and UNC Chapel Hill knew what to do: freeze the ball, chew up the clock. Four corners time. Every day there is no news is a victory for Barack Obama. Quit campaigning. Go be a senator."

Like Castellanos, Ron Kaufman, lobbyist and Republican National Committeeman, was a top adviser to the failed presidential bid of Mitt Romney. His view is similar to Castellanos':

"I would not if I were him. They have had 21 or so debates and [Obama] has won zero! And [he has] been hurt by a few of them -- not make-believe hurt."

At this point, I was preparing to write that the consensus of the crowd was wrong. But then I heard from the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato. Rarely has an academic been so brilliant:

"The standard political wisdom is that the frontrunner should use every opportunity to avoid giving the challenger free publicity. Obama is the frontrunner by far in delegates won and money raised, but thanks to Rev. Wright and a gaffe or two, he's a shaky frontrunner. At this point, he can probably insist on the nomination, given that the party cannot survive a break with the African-American community, the most reliable source of Democratic votes in November. But Obama needs to go into the convention and the fall campaign looking like a winner, with some real momentum. You don't get that by playing it safe and shrinking from challenges, whether [from] solutions to the Michigan and Florida situations or debate opportunities. It's a roll of the dice, but I think you can make a good argument that a dramatic Lincoln-Douglas style debate (or some other format) might enable him to break out of the timid image that is starting to define him, perhaps unfairly. Obama needs to come out roaring and swinging, not just at Clinton, but at McCain. In any additional debate he should pivot back and forth between Clinton and McCain, and show that he welcomes the chance to take them both on at once. After all, what can Hillary Clinton say in a debate that would do more damage to his image than Jeremiah Wright has just done?"

Sabato, it turned out, is not a lone voice in the wilderness. He was soon backed up by Simon Rosenberg, chief honcho at NDN (formerly the New Democratic Network) and political entrepreneur extraordinaire:

"If Senator Obama is to win he will need to once again set the pace in the Democratic race, rather than letting Senator Clinton set the tone and tenor of the race. I agree with Senator Obama that there have been plenty of debates, but in this case, at this time, his refusal to go along with Senator Clinton reinforces the notion that she is driving the campaign, leading the fight, and that he is off his game."