The real debate tonight wasn’t between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it was between Clinton advisers Mark Penn and Mandy Grunwald. A New York Times story on the internal discussions this week in the Clinton campaign framed the debate like this:
Even now, after a string of defeats, her advisers are divided over how to proceed as they head toward what could be her last stands, in Ohio and Texas on March 4.
Some — led by Mark Penn, her chief strategist — have been pushing Mrs. Clinton to draw sharper and deeper contrasts with Mr. Obama, arguing that she has no other option, campaign officials said.
Others, particularly Mandy Grunwald, her media adviser, have pushed for a less aggressive approach, arguing that attacks would not help Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in an environment in which she is increasingly appearing to struggle, aides said.
And indeed, it appeared throughout much of the debate that Clinton was torn between Penn’s blaze of glory strategy and Grunwald’s magnanimous stateswoman strategy. But for the most part, and most notably in the end, Grunwald’s strategy won the night.
Hillary Clinton’s closing statement. Partly channeling her famous New Hampshire moment (“People often ask me, how do you do it?”), partly channeling her husband circa 1992 (“The hits I’ve taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country.”), and partly channeling John Edwards (“Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine.”), Clinton closed the night with more grace and emotional sincerity than at any other moment in this campaign. The culmination came near the end, when she appeared to concede that she most likely was sitting beside the next President of the United States: ”I am honored– I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored.” The speech received a minute-long standing ovation from the University of Texas audience, and if she’s at all lucky, it will be how Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign will be remembered.
1. Barack Obama – Again, he showed all the rhetorical skill and policy mastery of his one-on-one performance three weeks ago in California. The lack of time limits that were ever present (and ever necessary) in the six, seven, and eight-person debates helps him tremendously. He was strong on the “meeting with foreign leaders” question that every Democratic debate now must include by law, noting that while it may seem bold or unorthodox, undoing the Bush administration’s damage to our foreign policy requires the extra step. And he stayed calm and on message when Clinton unexpectedly changed course and began attacking. When she brought up the fact that one of his supporters, Texas State Senator Kirk Watson, was stumped on live television when asked to name just one of Obama’s accomplishments, Obama countered deftly by listing his major accomplishments, from ethics reform to Walter Reed. He also gave his most effective argument against the plagiarism charges yet, noting that Deval Patrick is a national co-chairman of his campaign who gave him the lines to use, and the notion that that is somehow out of bounds is “silly.”
For the most part though, Obama appeared content to run out the clock and not make news. He rarely missed an opportunity to point out the fact that his policy positions and those of Hillary Clinton are nearly identical, making the debate not about who has the best ideas but rather who can get those ideas done. On the one major substantive difference of health care mandates, he held his own, criticizing Clinton’s plan for “forcing” people to get health care they can’t afford and invoking a Massachusetts mandate system that has had decidedly mixed results. It’s also worth noting that Obama made substantively the best case against John McCain, saying that debating the Republican frontrunner will be easier if the discussion is focused on Barack Obama’s philosophy argument (that the Iraq War was a miscalculation from the start) rather than Hillary Clinton’s tactical argument (that the Iraq War was the right thing to do but mismanaged).
The one notable vulnerability Obama has shown in these debates is the occasional flash of cockiness. He struck a discordant note midway through the debate when he veered briefly away from the point he was making to pat himself (jokingly, but jarringly) on the back: “So what I’ve been talking about, in these speeches– and I’ve got to admit, some of them are pretty good…” And on the question of whether he is prepared to be commander-in-chief, his argument about his history of good judgment on foreign policy went so deep into “I was right” territory that it ended up straying a bit too close to ”I told you so” land. It’s something he’ll have to watch for carefully, especially against a distinguished and respected war veteran like John McCain.
But overall, it was another good night for Obama. He showed he’s prepared to be president, showed that he’s nearly bulletproof to attacks, and showed that he is genuinely eager and genuinely ready to go up against John McCain in November.
2. Hillary Clinton – For the first half of the debate, we saw heavy shades of the national frontrunning, leading by 20 points in every poll, Hillary Clinton of summer 2007. She was relaxed, she was substantive, and she was training all her fire on George Bush and the Republicans, making herself look like a strong advocate for the Democratic Party. It was as though she had no idea and couldn’t care less what the polls said or what the results of the last contest– or the last 10 contests– were. She intentionally passed up several tailor-made opportunities (by the increasingly exasperated CNN moderators) to attack Barack Obama, graciously pointing out that while they may disagree on details, they are both strongly on board “the Democratic agenda.” This Hillary Clinton could have won the nomination. The other Hillary Clinton– who unexpectedly showed up halfway through to throw cheap canned shots at Barack Obama in a last-ditch effort to gain traction in a race that is all but over– will not.
It appears as though Clinton went into this debate focused on three key areas of attack against Obama: substance, plagiarism, and health care mandates. And after 45 minutes of sitting on her hands, she went after all three hard. She began by parenthetically raising the Watson stumped-on-accomplishments interview, saying that “words are important and words matter, but actions speak louder than words.” (Her admission that “words are important and words matter” being a conflicting counterpoint to one of her recent slogans-of-the-week, “Talk is cheap.”)
Pundits have speculated whether Clinton, with her chance at the nomination rapidly approaching zero, would at some point in the debate take a swing for the fences. And she did just that on the plagiarism charge, with this painfully over-prepared line: “Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox.” For the first time all night, CNN’s online real-time reaction tracker dropped below 50, and for the first and only time, the University of Texas audience booed. It was a line that might have worked in the 1980s, reminiscent of Walter Mondale’s “Where’s the beef?” But against the loftier politics of Barack Obama, canned soundbytes tend to turn into innocuous reminders of “politics as usual.”
Clinton also hammered Obama on his plan’s lack of a health care mandate, remarkably unaware or unconcerned with the fact that she is, public opinion-wise, on the wrong side of the issue. She even passed on the next question– whether Obama was ready to be commander-in-chief– in order to go back to health care. Clearly, her campaign believes that there is some benefit to pushing this one major policy difference– if not in winning the argument, perhaps in forcing Obama into a substantive error that could be exploited.
Despite the attacks, Clinton gave a typically rock-solid performance throughout most of the debate. She was strong on immigration, calling portions of the border fence plan ”dumb,” and clear on the question of whether there was any danger in America becoming a bilingual nation (she’s for English as America’s common language, but against making it the official language). She did nothing tonight to harm her strong support in the Latino community, and that alone should keep her from getting blown out in Texas the way she has in recent states.
Overall, Clinton didn’t do what she needed to in order to overtake Obama, though at this point nothing short of a miracle will do that. Perhaps she is waiting for the debate Tuesday in Cleveland, Ohio, to unload whatever ammunition she has left. Or perhaps, as it appeared at times tonight, especially in her closing statement, she is beginning to come to terms with the fact that despite her best efforts she will not be the Democratic nominee. In the interests of the Democratic Party, and in the interests of any future run Hillary Clinton may take at Senate Majority Leader or the presidency, now may be the time for her to begin graciously lifting Obama up rather than frivolously tearing him down. But above all else, her mostly noble performance casts serious doubts on the slash-and-burn tactics of Mark Penn (and Bill Clinton) and serious curiosity as to how a consistent Hillary Clinton the Democratic Party Stateswoman would have fared in this race.