I'll begin at the end, because somehow it seems most pertinent. At the close of last night's Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton conveyed the impression that she is preparing herself for defeat.
Some of this was communicated in her words: "And, you know, no matter what happens in this contest - and I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored. Whatever happens, we're going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends." More importantly, it was communicated in the way she spoke those words. She sounded wistful, as if resigned to her political fate.
Actually, she seemed to be going through the motions for much of the evening - repeatedly forfeiting opportunities to skewer Barack Obama, and reciting scripted attack lines with no apparent fervor. Perhaps the news yesterday of her latest 11th straight loss (roughly 20,000 voters living overseas, organized in a party-sanctioned contest called Democrats Abroad, had opted for Obama in another 2-1 landslide) had taken the stuffing out of her. Or perhaps it was the news that the polls in Texas and Ohio have tightened considerably, and that her latest firewalls may indeed fall to the prevailing winds. Even the Teamsters have now endorsed Obama.
Whatever the reason - and perhaps it's just plain fatigue, given the pace that she and Obama have been compelled to sustain - she seemed tentative at a time when she could least afford it. She needed to do something, or have something happen, that would dramatically change the dynamic of the Democratic race. But nothing changed. Obama wants his momentum to be the prevailing story line of the week, and nothing came out of the debate to change that.
She was repeatedly invited, by the moderators, to shake things up. She was asked, for example, to explain why she believes (at least in stump speeches) that Obama is just a guy who talks a good game. In Texas lingo, she was asked whether she believes that her rival is all hat and no cattle.
She launched into a laborious, cautious response, the verbal equivalent of tiptoeing in bare feet on hot coals ("I know that there are comparisons and contrasts to be drawn between us"), along with a rote observation about the hapless Obama surrogate who was hammered by Chris Matthews the other night for his failure to cite any Obama achievements. She didn't explain the reference. More significantly, she passed up a chance to confront Obama with an argument that might have made some news. She could have quizzed him on his thin Senate record, and asked him to cite a single instance when he has taken a leadership role on any of the big issues (poverty, education, immigration, health care). She didn't, and the moment passed.
Later, she was asked to explain why she believes (at least on the stump) that she alone is ready to be the next commander-in-chief. Why doesn't she believe that Obama has those qualities?
Again she punted. She launched instead into a long recitation of her own resume ("What I mean is that, you know, for more than 15 years, I've been honored to represent our country in more than 80 countries..."), and didn't say a word about Obama.
Perhaps, at this late stage of the debate, she was simply gun shy about assailing Obama; earlier, while talking about how Obama had borrowed some rhetoric from his friend and national co-chair, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, she had uttered one of her scripted attack lines ("lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox"), and the audience had booed.
But perhaps there's a more high-minded reason why she didn't question his commander creds: Facing the prospect of defeat in the primaries, she may not have wanted to undercut Obama on this key qualification and thereby give the Republicans ammunition. (The GOP has already been cranking out press releases contending that Obama is not ready to command).
Whatever the reason for her hesitance, she afforded Obama the luxury of responding in the manner of his choosing. And he took full advantage. Not only did he talk up his own priorities ("My number one job as president will be to keep the American people safe"), but he didn't hestitate to say a few words about Clinton. He shifted to the offense and whacked her for voting to authorize the Iraq war, weaving it into his overall response:
"And on what I believe was the single most important foreign policy decision of this generation, whether or not to go to war in Iraq, I believe I showed the judgment of a commander in chief. And I think that Senator Clinton was wrong in her judgments on that."
A year ago, when Obama was an untested debater, he would not have seized such an opening and twisted the knife so deftly.
Nor did Clinton show much fight on the sensitive issue of the superdelegates. When asked whether the superdelegates should choose a nominee in defiance of how the public voted in the primaries (an option that the Clinton camp has vigorously promoted), yet again she punted. Her full non-answer:
"Well, you know, these are the rules that are followed, and you know, I think that it will sort itself out. I'm not worried about that. We will have a nominee, and we will have a unified Democratic Party, and we will go on to victory in November."
And Obama took that open opportunity to put himself on the side of the people's will, and imply that the superdelegates should follow suit: "Well, I think it is important, given how hard Senator Clinton and I have been working, that these primaries and caucuses count for something. And so my belief is that the will of the voters, expressed in this long election process, is what ultimately will determine who our next nominee is going to be." And then he wove that into his larger theme about making politics and government work for the average citizen, and "knocking down the barriers that stand between the American people and their dreams."
Meanwhile, Clinton's aides were reduced to sending out press releases about how, for instance, Obama last night used a word that John Kerry had used four years ago. It seems that Kerry, while lamenting the loss of factory jobs in the Rustbelt, described how machinery had been "unbolted" from the floor and shipped to plants overseas...and last night, early in the debate, Obama said he has talked to Ohio workers who have seen their equipment "unbolted" and shipped to China.
If this is the best they can do, then it's no wonder that Clinton sounded so elegiac at the closing.