Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Defusing, deflecting, deferring, disarming

Hillary Clinton delivered a decent performance last night, as she and Barack Obama shared a debate stage for the 20th time. With the exception of one or two cringeworthy episodes, she was assertive without being strident, and she managed to score a few points at Obama's expense. But I question whether the voters in Texas and Ohio (particularly the former) will pave the way for a 21st meeting.

The problem for Clinton was that Obama seemed basically unflappable. He played defense for the most of the debate - such is the lot of frontrunners; it's the downside of success - but never seemed to break a sweat.

Compelled as he was, by both Clinton and the questioners, to explain himself on a number of fronts (his flighty rhetoric, his health care plan, his lack of foreign policy experience, his allegedly insufficient distancing from Louis Farrakhan), he even cheerily conceded a few points, defusing and deflecting and deferring and disarming at every turn. Particularly the latter. Taking various opportunities to flatter Clinton ("Sen. Clinton is right"..."Sen. Clinton speaks accurately"...Sen. Clinton is a "magnificent public servant"), he went into magnanimity mode to take the wind out of her sails. If her goal was to rattle him into making a game-changing error, she failed.

He was comfortable in the role of counter-puncher. When she noted (accurately) that she and Obama have basically the same Senate voting records on Iraq, and that, for all the foresight of his pre-Senate antiwar position, "he didn't have the responsibility, he didn't have to vote," Obama calmly countered with the kind of soundbite that viewers remember. On their Iraq similar voting records: "Once we had driven the bus into the ditch, there were only so many ways to get out." On Clinton's '02 war authorization vote: "The question is, who's making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch?"

When she explained why she believes that Obama lacks the requisite experience to run our foreign policy, he countered by saying, "Sen. Clinton equates experience with longevity in Washington. I don't think the American people do" - and, indeed, voters have long demonstrated that they will elect outsiders, such as Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Clinton's spouse in 1992. Not to mention Woodrow Wilson in 1912, a governor of New Jersey and ex-professor who wound up running World War I.

When she squeezed him on Louis Farrakhan (who, unfortunately for Obama, has tendered his endorsement), it appeared for a moment that he might get defensive. But no. The episode began when Obama was asked whether he would accept this anti-Semite as a supporter. Obama sounded a tad shaky on the matter, even to the point of temporarily losing his gift for articulation: "I am very familiar with his record, as are the American people. That's why I have consistently denounced it...I obviously can't censor him. It's not support that I sought...I can't, uh, say to somebody that he can't say that he thinks I'm a good guy."

Clinton countered with an effective response that was firm without sounding too sanctimonious. Recalling an incident when her Senate bid was endorsed by an anti-Semitic party in New York, she said: "I made it very clear that I did not want their support...I thought it was more important to stand on principle....There's a difference between denouncing and rejecting...We've got to be even stronger."

Whereupon Obama, rather than taking the bait and digging in, simply responded this way: "I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word reject Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word denounce, then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce."

Clinton declared, "Good, good, excellent," as if she had just taught a pupil to shape up, while scoring a major victory. But Obama seemed to convey, with faint bemusement, that this political wordplay was not worth fighting about, all the while appearing conciliatory. I doubt he suffered any damage in this episode.

Clinton was articulate, as usual, on the issue of universal health care, but Obama hugged her on that as well ("95 percent of our health care plans are similar"). When she complained - accurately - that some of Obama's mailers have distorted some features of health care plan, he shrugged off the matter by saying that the Clinton campaign has sent out, or condoned, a fusillade of negative attacks, yet "we haven't whined about it because I understand that's the nature of these campaigns."

She nailed him on one point, however. While defending his foreign policy credentials, he mentioned his membership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But Clinton pointed out that, even though Obama chairs a subcommittee with jurisdiction over NATO and Afghanistan, "he's held not one substantive meeting" during his chairmanship. Obama's response: "I became chairman of this committee at the beginning of this campaign, at the beginning of 2007. So it is true that we haven't had oversight hearings on Afghanistan." Perhaps he gets kudos for acknowledging this without sounding defensive, but it does arguably prove the critics' point that Obama is a young man in a hurry who hasn't done sufficient spadework in the trenches.

Nevertheless, Clinton had her own shaky episodes. She has repeatedly refused to release her joint tax returns, and when asked about this last night, she said she would do so upon becoming the nominee, "or even earlier." Given the possibility that her candidacy could be effectively over by next Tuesday, that isn't much of a time window. Meanwhile, at another point in the debate, she tried to paint Obama as a reckless naif by claiming that he wants to "bomb Pakistan" - whereas, in reality, he has said no such thing. He has repeatedly made it clear that he's talking about special operations (last summer: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will"). Clinton's erroneous charge was literally out of the John McCain playbook.

But her worst moment, a self-inflicted wound, occurred in the 17th minute of the debate. The timing itself aggravated the injury. A rule of thumb in these events is that it's unwise to screw up during the first half hour, when the TV audience is biggest and when the journalists are still writing for deadline. Clinton has a habit of delivering leaden one-liners, and this was no exception. Asked a question about NAFTA, she started to whine about being picked on, claiming that debate hosts always "seem" to ask her questions while Obama can hang back and respond. "I don't mind," she said, although she clearly did, which was why she brought it up. "I'm happy to answer it," although she wasn't, thereby telegraphing insincerity.

Then came the pre-scripted clinker: "If anybody saw Saturday Night Live, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," a remark that predictably drew boos, all the while demonstrating that Clinton was prepared to hang her hat on a comedy show - which, while taking her side the other night, has just as often depicted her in skits as the queen of entitlement.

I doubt she shifted the dynamic of this contest; at this late stage, the trend lines are probably impervious to the impact of a single debate. For instance, the latest Quinnipiac poll in Pennsylvania now shows that Clinton leads by only six points in her alleged stronghold - assuming the race even goes that far. These pollsters attribute the narrowing of the Pennsylvania margin (from 16 points just two weeks ago) to young voters, and last night Obama the Unflappable did nothing to imperil their devotion.