Is that the best they got?
Anyone who watched Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate hoping to see Barack Obama or John Edwards tear Hillary Clinton apart had to be disappointed. In the run-up to the this face-off in Las Vegas, both Edwards and Obama had intensified their attacks on the woman leading in the polls. And with the most recent survey in Iowa showing the race in that all-important state tightening to almost a three-way tie, there was reason to assume that Edwards and Obama would continue the assault.
They did try, but at the end of the two-hour event it was hardly apparent that they had scored any new points. Why not? There were two main reasons. First, Clinton was well prepped for the slams. Second, the attackers had no new ammo to fire at her. Moreover, the audience at the debate was not eager to see Dem-on-Dem violence, and people in the crowd booed when a knife came out.
The first question addressed the meme of the evening. CNN’s Campbell Brown asked Clinton to respond to the Obama/Edwards charge that she avoids taking stands on tough issues and practices the politics of parsing. She had her lines down. Joking that her pants suit was made of asbestos, she insisted she had been fighting for women, children, working families, and union members for 35 years and that in this critical election the Democrats must pick a candidate “who’s been tested and who is ready to lead on day one.” This has been her pitch from day one–and it’s a jab at Obama, the freshman senator.
Next Wolf Blitzer gave Obama the chance to advance his offensive against Clinton. Noting that Obama a few nights ago had suggested that Clinton is “triangulating” and “running a textbook Washington campaign,” he asked Obama what he meant by that. Obama essentially repeated what he had previously said: Clinton’s botched answer in the previous debate to a question about awarding driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and her less-than-specific response to queries about Social Security show she cannot provide “straight answers to tough questions” and cannot respond to the American people’s desire for a “different kind of politics” that challenges the “standard practices of Washington.”
This was not a major blast. Clinton retorted by accusing Obama of not “stepping up” on universal health care because his health care proposal would not create mandates that force people to obtain insurance. The two then engaged in a rather wonkish back-and-forth on their health care plans. Actually, a calm and detailed discussion about the differences in their plans would have made for an interesting debate. But this exchange looked more personal than policy.
Then it was Edwards’ turn. Blitzer asked Edwards to explain his charge that Clinton is a politician who parses. The former one-term senator suggested Clinton could not be trusted because she has said she will end the Iraq war but would still keep some troops there and because she recently voted (with 70-plus other senators) to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist outfit (which could help the Bush administration cook up a case for war). Edwards also maintained that Clinton is a defender of a “broken” and “rigged” Washington system.
She fired back, saying she didn’t mind taking shots on the issues but she resented anyone throwing mud at her that is “right out of the Republican playbook.” Not content to play defense, she went on the offense, pointing out that when Edwards ran for vice president in 2004 he did not advocate universal health care but does so in this campaign. So perhaps he’s the flip-flopper.
In these opening skirmishes, no one gained ground. But that was good news for Hillaryites. She held her own, and neither Obama nor Edwards advanced their critique of her.
From that point on, the debate settled down, and the candidates proceeded to agree more than not on most of the issues. There were some splits. Not all the Democrats supported issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Clinton, Edwards, Biden and Dodd said no; Obama and Richardson said yes. (Kucinich told Blitzer he “took exception” to the term “illegal immigrants” because people cannot be “illegal.”) Most of the aspirants urged some sort of education reform. Bill Richardson called for a national service program. Joe Biden touted his proposal for dealing with the Pakistan crisis. Chris Dodd said he was opposed to the Peru trade accord, noting Clinton and Obama support it. Obama called for sending U.S. inspectors to China to safeguard food and products made there for export to the United States.
There was a scuffle over the Iran legislation vote. Biden called it “counterproductive” and a “serious mistake.” Edwards decried the bill as a blank check for the Bush administration and neocon hawks. Clinton defended her vote for the measure and asserted she has been working for months with other senators to prevent Bush from attacking Iran on his own. But when Obama and Edwards attempted to revive the case against Clinton, audience members jeered.
At one point, Obama and Clinton tussled over Social Security. He called for lifting the cap that restricts the Social Security payroll tax to only the first $93,000 of income. Clinton countered that a compete removal of this cap would lead to a $1 trillion tax on the middle class. Obama saw an opening. He replied that since only 6 percent of Americans earn more than $93,000, calling this move a middle-class tax increase was dishonest. “Playing with numbers to make a point,” he said, was “the kind of thing I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani.” People in the auditorium booed. For them, comparing Clinton to the Republican leaders was going too far. Obama didn’t try that again.
During the debate, the back-of-the-packers all showed their strengths. (Biden had several moments of humor.) And the three leading contenders put in performances similar to earlier debate appearances. Clinton was back on her game. Edwards seemed more confident in swinging at Clinton than did Obama. And Obama was not able to match the intensity and passion of his much-praised speech at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner on Saturday night.
It may be that at this point in the race no single debate will change the overall dynamic of the Democratic contest. Which means that the decisive factors for Iowa and the other early states will be the organizing abilities of the campaigns, the stump performances of the candidates, and the impact of the ad barrages that have begun. What the candidates and their campaigns do off the national stage will be what counts.