Obama and Clinton Debate in Cleveland: No Pain, No Gain

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If the political winds in Ohio and Texas are blowing in Barack Obama’s favor—and polls in each state show Obama gaining strength—Hillary Clinton did little during Tuesday night’s debate in Cleveland to change the weather.

With a week to go before primaries in those important states, this debate was much a repeat of last Thursday’s face-off. The two remaining Democratic candidates once again got hot and bothered over the issue of health care insurance mandates. But neither had anything new to say. The Clinton campaign has been pounding Obama for weeks on this front, but the wonky issue has not provided her any traction. And after 16 minutes of grueling back and forth—much of which was devoted to each candidate insisting that unnamed experts had pronounced his or her plan the best—Clinton did not achieve any breakthrough. She claimed the difference between their two health care proposals—she’s for a comprehensive mandate that would force all Americans to purchase health insurance; he’s for a limited mandate covering insurance for kids—is the defining issue of the Democratic presidential contest. His response: not really. He minimized the gap between their plans. And it’s hard for a candidate to have a battle royale with a foe who deftly maintains, we ain’t got that big of a dispute here, let’s move on. By now it should be clear: mandates are not going to save Hillary Clinton.

The other big squabble of the night came right after the mandates mudwrestle, and it focused on NAFTA, which has emerged as an issue in the past week, with Clinton and Obama competing for blue-collar Democratic voters in Ohio. As part of this tussle, Clinton has in recent days complained that Obama has unfairly tarred her as a flip-flopper on NAFTA. (Her current position: the trade accord is flawed, needs to be renegotiated, and there should be a time-out in negotiating similar treaties.) At the debate, she declared that she’s been a critic of NAFTA “from the very beginning.” Obama called her out on this—and simultaneously, his campaign sent reporters a link to a YouTube video in which she praises NAFTA. (Obama’s campaign website conveniently features a list of Clinton’s pro-NAFTA remarks over the years.)

For the rest of the debate, there was little policy disagreement. Tim Russert, who co-moderated with Brain Williams, tried to push the candidates into a catfight over the familiar stuff: experience, judgment, readiness to be commander in chief. Clinton did not go nuclear, and Obama calmly absorbed her well-rehearsed criticisms. He noted that Clinton “equates experience with longevity in Washington” and that this is not “the accurate measure.” As always, Clinton was in command of policy details large and small (though she almost could not remember the name of the Vladimir Putin’s presumed successor in Russia). Obama seemed more confident than ever in fielding foreign policy questions, and by citing Clinton’s vote on the Iraq war resolution, he turned most questions in this area into a referendum on the judgment of the two candidates.

Clinton’s few jabs at Obama barely nicked him. He parried successfully all night long. She pointed out that as chairman of a Senate subcommittee on Europe he has not held a single hearing on how to bolster NATO in Afghanistan. He replied that he assumed that post at the start of the presidential campaign and has not had time to do so. She claimed he had recklessly advocated bombing Pakistan. He pointed out that he had called for attacking al Qaeda positions in Northwest Pakistan if the United States comes into possession of actionable intelligence and if the Pakistani government does not take steps to go after terrorists there. And he noted that the Bush administration recently attacked and killed in Pakistan al Qaeda’s No. 3 in a similar fashion. (In other words, he’s tough enough.) Clinton accused him of voting against lowering the cap on credit card interest rates. He explained this had been a weak provision in a lousy bill that he had opposed for other reasons.

Though Clinton tried to depict herself as a fighter for working Americans, none of her slaps against Obama were too forceful. And Obama repeatedly hailed her experience and accomplishments—and smoothly explained why he believed he was the better candidate: he’d made the right call on the Iraq war, he can bring people together, he can attract independents. He effectively responded to a clip in which Clinton poked fun at his let’s-come-together rhetoric. To defeat the special interests, Obama said, a president “will have to mobilize and inspire the American people…and there is nothing romantic or silly about that.”

Russert hurled a few gotcha questions at the two. Obama refused to be pinned down on whether he would stick to an earlier pledge to accept public financing in the general election and abide by a spending limit far lower than the amount of money he could raise otherwise. When Russert hit Obama with a question about his being endorsed by Louis Farrakhan, Obama noted he had routinely denounced the Nation of Islam leader for his anti-Semitism. (Clinton took a stab at exploiting this matter by saying that she had not just denounced an anti-Semitic group in New York State during her first Senate run but had rejected its support. Fine, said Obama, I reject Farrakhan as well as denounce him.) In response to a Russert query, Clinton refused to say if she would release her tax returns anytime soon. (One issue is whether the $5 million she loaned her campaign came from a pot of money that includes funds Bill Clinton has received from overseas and special interest sources.) And when a wide-eyed Russert asked each if he or she would vow to re-invade Iraq to take out al Qaeda (should it establish a presence in that country), both Clinton and Obama declined to humor him.

There were no defining moments of this debate—not much to analyze or psychoanalyze. Early on, Clinton complained she always gets the first questions in the debates and alluded to a recent Saturday Night Live skit that parodied the media for being gaga over Obama. This was not quite a shift-the-paradigm gesture. And at the end of the debate, Brian Williams asked both candidates to note an action taken or a statement made during their public career that they wished they could undo. Clinton almost said her 2002 vote on the Iraq war resolution was a mistake. Then Obama showed her up by admitting a true error: that he had not tried to stop Congress from intervening in the Terri Schiavo case. He called this “an example of inaction” and won points for candor.

At debate’s end, there was no blood on the floor—and not much enlightenment. Which, of course, benefits the front-runner. Clinton and her advisers had obviously calculated that their best chance now is to plod ahead and not try anything too daring in full public view. After all, by this point, the race and the candidates are well defined. And in Cleveland, Obama did not want to change the overall dynamics of the contest. In that, he succeeded rather well.


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