Hillary Clinton got cuffed around pretty badly last night, at the latest Democratic presidential debate, but that kind of thing is bound to happen when a candidate acts like she's already measuring the drapes in the Oval Office.
And, in response, she didn't always perform well. At times, she seemed testy and defensive. None of this may matter in the end, of course, since relatively few Amercans are even watching these '07 debates, but clearly some of her rivals (and the press, as represented by Tim Russert) signaled that they have no intention of allowing Hillary to simply bask in her front-runner status. And the danger, for Hillary, is that any poor responses delivered under fire might well be used as video fodder by the GOP at some future date.
Several moments were revealing last night. Hillary was repeatedly asked whether, in order to make Social Security solvent for the long haul, she would consider raising more money by requiring that affluent Americans pay more Social Security taxes. As Russert explained last night, "Right now, you pay tax for Social Security on your first $97,500 worth of income. Why not tax the entire income of every American?...Senator Clinton, would you be in favor of saying to the American people, 'I'm going to tax your income. I'm not going to cap at $97,500. Everyone, even if you're a millionaire, is going to pay Social Security tax on every cent they make'?"
But she wouldn't give a straight answer. She kept offering variations of her initial response: "I don't think I should be negotiating about what I would do as president. You know, I want to see what other people come to the table with." (Nobody in the primaries has even voted yet, and she's already negotiating as president.)
John Edwards jumped on her for this. Obviously, he needs to draw sharp contrasts with Hillary if he is to stand a chance of winning over liberal primary voters, but he deftly skewered her by turning her non-responsiveness into a character issue:
"I would say that the single most important thing for anybody running for president is to be willing to be honest with America...The American people deserve to hear the truth. They have heard so much politician double-talk on this issue. That's the reason young people don't believe Social Security's going to be there for them. Why would you possibly trust a bunch of politicians who say the same thing over and over and over...
"The honest truth is there are hard choices to be made here...I don't understand why somebody who makes $50 million a year pays Social Security tax on the first $97,000...while somebody who makes $85,000 a year pays Social Security tax on every dime of their income." (By the way, Edwards last night was far more effective than Barack Obama at dogging Hillary. Obama seemed semi-comatose, perhaps because he reportedly had a cold.)
Hillary even took some hits from Joe Biden - an unusual development, since he generally spends his time at these events agreeing with her on foreign policy, seemingly auditioning to be her Secretary of State. Last night, however, he basically declared that she as president would have trouble getting things done because of her image as a polarizer. Referring specificially to health care reform, he said:
"I think it's going to be more difficult -- unfairly, but I think it's more difficult for Hillary...The special interests, with regard to Hillary, they feed on this, you know, this Clinton-Bush thing. It's not Hillary's fault. But the fact of the matter is, it's much more difficult to go out and convince a group of Republicans, I would argue, getting something done that is of a major consequence...I'm not suggesting it's Hillary's fault. I think it's a reality that it's more difficult, because there's a lot of very good things that come with all the great things that President Clinton did. But there's also a lot of the old stuff that comes back. It's kind of hard. When I say 'old stuff,' I'm referring to policy. Policy."
(I love that last qualifier, lest anyone think he was referring to the Lewinsky scandal.)
But her most awkward moment came later in the debate, when Russert brought up the delicate topic of her husband's backstage clout and its potential benefits to her political career. This was shortly after Hillary had insisted, with reference to her husband, "I'm running on my own. Im going to the people on my own."
Her husband heads a charitable group called the William J. Clinton Foundation. Recently, Bill remarked that the foundation is not required to publish the names of all its donors, but, in Bill's words, "if Hillary became president, I think there would questions about whether people would try to win favor (with her) by giving money to me."
Russert read that quote, then asked Hillary: "In light of that, do you believe that the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton (presidential) library should publish all the donors who give contributions to those two entities?"
Hillary: "I actually co-sponsored legislation that would have sitting presidents reveal any donation to their presidential library, and I think that's a good policy." And, as for the foundation, "it would be the same, because that's where the library comes from."
But since there is no such legal requirement, and no apparent likelihood that her bill is destined to become law, Russert asked whether her husband's library and foundation would be willing to voluntarily make their donors public, to address the issue that Bill himself had raised.
Hillary: "Well, you'll have to ask them."
No elaboration. A cold stare, directed at Russert. An expression that said, "I wish I could throttle you with that necktie."
Russert kept going, anyway: "What's your recommendation?"
Hillary: "Well, I don't talk about my private conversations with my husband, but I'm sure he'd be happy to consider that."
There was a lot of bob and weave in those answers. She says she is "running on her own," but, as to whether private donors will curry favor with her by going through Bill, she deems that to be mere pillow talk. Whatever. Russert soon moved on to the topic of Edwards' $400 haircut, giving Hillary a breather. But, as the biggest target in the Democratic field, she'll be back in the line of fire soon enough.