Debate Reaction: Hillary Clinton’s Me-Too Problem

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clinton.jpg Hillary Clinton has a Me-Too problem, and it was illustrated perfectly at last night’s Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia.

Here’s the problem. Clinton allows Barack Obama and John Edwards (and sometimes even Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd) to dictate the policy proposals of the Democratic field. By and large, she puts forward relatively moderate ideas that rely heavily on conventional thinking—until one or more of her competitors takes a more bold, populist stand. Then Clinton immediately embraces the new stand, and the competitor or competitors have nothing on which to run against her.

I wrote a comment on David’s post on this yesterday, regarding opposition to Michael Mukasey’s nomination to be attorney general. Clinton announced she opposed the nomination, though she was following Edwards, who was following Obama, who was following Dodd. “So is this how a candidate maintains frontrunner status?” I wrote. “Make sure there is not an inch of difference between her and any other candidate? In a word, mimicry?”

That doesn’t strike me as true leadership. And yesterday’s debate had a moment that illustrated this perfectly. Clinton was asked by Tim Russert if she supported New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. According to Russert, Clinton had told a group of newspaper editors that the idea made sense. Clinton responded approvingly, saying, “What Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform.” Illegal immigrants are on the roads and will get into accidents. It’s a reality, she said, and we ought to have a system to handle it.

But then Chris Dodd criticized the idea, saying that a driver’s license is a privilege and not a right. Clinton instantly said, “I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done.” Dodd pounced: “Wait a minute. No, no, no. You said yes, you thought it made sense to do it.” Clinton responded by trying to explain that Spitzer’s plan included three different kind of licenses. She promptly got lost in the weeds and accused the assembled of playing “gotcha.” With that, it was off to the races.

Edwards: “Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago, and I think this is a real issue for the country. I mean, America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them. Because what we’ve had for seven years is double-talk from Bush and from Cheney, and I think America deserves us to be straight.”

Obama: “I was confused on Senator Clinton’s answer. I can’t tell whether she was for it or against it, and I do think that is important. You know, one of the things that we have to do in this country is to be honest about the challenges that we face. Immigration is a difficult issue. But part of leadership is not just looking backwards and seeing what’s popular, or trying to gauge popular sentiment. It’s about setting a direction for the country, and that’s what I intend to do as president.”

And it wasn’t an isolated case. On multiple occasions throughout the night, when Clinton was the third or fourth respondent to a question, she would begin her response by saying something to the effect of, “I agree with everything that my colleagues have just said.” After she spent the night getting slammed on Iraq, Iran, and even on driver’s licenses, the best she could do was tell everyone she had the same position as everybody on everything.

Update: Transcript of the debate here. Note that Chris Dodd supports the decriminalization of marijuana and Dennis Kucinich admits that he believes he has seen a UFO. Courage points for both, I suppose.

Update Update: A little on why the Spitzer proposal makes sense over at DMI Blog.

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