Hillary Clinton triumphed in last night's Democratic presidential debate - big time, as Dick Cheney might put it.
She abandoned her longstanding pose of regal detachment; instead, she waded into the fray, took on her assailants, and basically took them apart. She didn't go after them on character, she did it on the issues. She fought cleanly, and it put her chief rivals back on their heels.
Referring to Barack Obama, she said at the start of the debate: "He talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions. But when it came time to step up and decide whether or not he would support universal health care coverage, he chose not to do that. His plan would leave 15 million Americans out. That's about the population of Nevada, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. I have a universal health care plan that covers everyone. I've been fighting this battle against the special interests for more than 15 years, and I am proud to fight this battle....You know, the most important thing here is to level with the American people. Senator Obama's health care plan does not cover everyone."
Obama disputed her, of course, but the fact is that a number of health experts agree with Hillary on this. The point is, within the frame of the debate, she had quickly signaled her intention to counterattack, using policy to mock the criticisms that are usually flung her way (such as Obama's charge that she doesn't level with the American people).
She went after John Edwards, in similar fashion: "I don't mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook. Because what I believe is important is that we put forth what we stand for....Senator Edwards raised health care again -- when Senator Edwards ran (for president) in 2004, he wasn't for universal health care. I'm glad he is now."
OK, the "mud" line might have been a tad strong - my idea of "mud" is the stuff that lands in my email box, from right-wingers who paint her as a lesbian murderer - but she was accurate about Edwards changing his stance on health care. She was also greatly aided, shortly thereafter, by CNN questioner John Roberts, who suggested to Edwards that it was unfair to assail Hillary for flip-flopping on issues, when in fact he has done the same. As Roberts noted, "You were for the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository before you were against it. You were for the Iraq war before you were against it." (This debate took place in Nevada, where the big local issue is whether nuclear wastes should be stored inside that mountain. Edwards once said yes, now he says no.)
Perhaps it's sheer coincidence, but, after taking these hits from Hillary and Roberts, Edwards was fairly tame for the rest of the debate. Much later, when the questioners virtually invited him to attack Hillary for a recent hawkish vote on Iran, he demurred. Perhaps he didn't want to get booed again. Shortly before the Iran issue resurfaced, he had taken a drive-by swipe at Hillary, basically calling her a corporate Democrat, and the audience loudly voiced its disapproval. He was reduced to pleading, "No, wait a minute..." Clearly, the Democrats in the seats didn't want to see their candidates fight among themselves; that, by definition, helped the frontrunner.
Obama learned the same lesson late in the debate. While he and Hillary were fencing over the future of Social Security, and whether the cap on the Social Security tax should be raised, Obama cut loose with a line that sounded like it had been cooked up in advance. After Hillary voiced reluctance on raising the cap, Obama said, "You know, this is the kind of thing that I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani," and the crowd didn't go for that, either. Hearing the boos, he was forced to plead, "no, no, no, this is important."
By that point in the debate, however, Obama had already ceded some valuable ground to Hillary. Early on, he was asked to explain his stance on the issue that had tripped her up at the Philadelphia debate two weeks ago: whether illegal immigrants should be given drivers' licenses. She has since honed her stance down to one word - "No" - whereas Obama, who always zaps her for not talking straight, proceeded last night to talk in circles.
At first he said, "When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to require that illegal aliens get trained, get a license, get insurance to protect public safety. That was my intention." But moments later he said, "I am not proposing that that's what we do. What I'm saying is that we can't" - now the audience was laughing - "No, no, no, no. Look, I have already said, I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that driver's licenses at the same level can make that happen. But what I also know is that if we keep on getting distracted by this problem, then we are not solving it."
Say, what? Hillary won that round simply by standing aside.
She even managed to have it both ways on the "gender" factor. When asked whether she has been portraying herself as a girl being unfairly beaten up by the boys, she said: "I'm not playing, as some people say, the gender card here in Las Vegas. I'm just trying to play the winning card. And I understand, very well, that people are not attacking me because I'm a woman; they're attacking me because I'm ahead." (She may not have been playing the gender card "here in Las Vegas," but she dealt it often, pre-Vegas. Anyway, the audience loved the "because I'm ahead" line.)
But then, seizing on an invitation from CNN questioner Campbell Brown, she proceeded to fly the banner of sisterhood: "Well, it is clear, I think, from women's experiences that from time to time, there may be some impediments. (Laughter from the appreciate women in the hall.) And it has been my goal over the course of my lifetime to be part of this great movement of progress that includes all of us, but has particularly been significant to me as a woman. And to be able to aim toward the highest, hardest glass ceiling is history-making. Now, I'm not running because I'm a woman. I'm running because I think I'm the best qualified and experienced person to hit the ground running, but it's humbling. (Applause from the women in the hall.) It's been inspiring. And I have to tell you, as I travel around the country, you know, fathers drive hours to bring their daughters to my events. And so many women in their 90s wait to shake my hand. And they say something like: I'm 95 years old, I was born before women could vote, and I want to live long enough to see a woman in the White House."
None of her rivals dented her after that. The two booing incidents occurred after that. I got the sense that Obama and Edwards are back in their old rut: They can't rise in the Democratic polls without attacking Hillary and creating doubt about her credentials, yet Democratic audiences are not receptive to seeing her under attack. And now that she is defending herself - rather than acting as if she was cruising toward her convention coronation - the audiences might support her even more.
As time ran out, a college student playfully inquired, "This is a fun question for you. Do you prefer diamonds or pearls?" And Hillary replied, "Now, I know I'm sometimes accused of not being able to make a choice. I want both."
Hey, it's that gender card again! But thanks to her performance last night, finishing with that dash of self deprecation, her candidacy is probably stronger this morning. And that's probably the gift she wanted most.
There's news on the conservative "family values" hypocrisy front. No, this isn't about Larry Craig, the anti-gay senator who got busted in the Minneapolis bathroom. And no, this isn't about Richard Curtis, the anti-gay legislator in Washington state who was caught wearing women's clothing in a gay porn store. And no, this isn't about
Glenn Murphy Jr., the (now departed) GOP chairman in Clark County, Indiana, and (now departed) chair of the Young Republican National Federation, who was recently being investigated for criminal deviate conduct, after a young associate told police that the GOP chairman had sought to perform an X-rated act upon his person.
This entry is actually about the other "family values" conservative, Florida state legislator Bob Allen, who, notwithstanding his consistent anti-gay voting record, was caught at a highway rest stop in July while offering to perform a sex act on a male cop for $20.
Yesterday, a county judge put Allen on six-months probation, ordered him to take an HIV-awareness course, and told him to stay away from the rest stop. My favorite line in today's Florida newspaper story: "Allen's future in politics remains uncertain." Apparently the Florida Republicans have yet to decide whether the chasm between Allen's voting record and his personal behavior warrants a call for his ouster.
And this is the party that claims to hold the moral high ground?