If you were wondering which Hillary Clinton would you see in last night's debate at Cleveland State University—the conciliatory Hillary seen in Austin? the party builder offered in Los Angeles? the sharp but optimistic winer of New Hampshire?—that candidate was previewed over the weekend when Clinton lashed out against the Obama campaign's mailings (AP Fact Check) that she claimed "distorted" her positions on NAFTA. "Meet me in Ohio. Let’s have a debate about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign."
This was the re-debut of Hillary Clinton as the "fighter" who would champion health care, jobs, civil rights and other core Democratic Party values. This is her strongest case as a candidate but comes much too late in the campaign. Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny at The New York Times: "She was relentless throughout the meeting. She insisted on responding to virtually every point that he made—often interrupting the debate moderators, Brian Williams and Tim Russert of NBC, as they tried to move on." Transcript.
Then there was that ill-timed comment about the pillow from the Saturday Night Live skit that slammed the Beltway press corp for fawning over Obama. "Well, could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time,’’ Clinton said. "And I don't mind. You know, I'll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious. And if anybody saw 'Saturday Night Live,' you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow.’" The point is well taken—even Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder could see the slant in press coverage—but complaining about press coverage will not win voters. It's about message.
Barack Obama pursued the classic front-runner’s strategy of remaining in the stratosphere and avoiding turbulence. His performance is much better in these debates and held his own in the extended 16 minute mini-debate on health care. Obama has won 10 states in a row, so, if he managed to avoid any minefields, he probably wins this debate.
More thoughts after the jump.
Brian Williams and Tim Russert later pressed the candidates on their records and Russert's questioning was apparently scripted by his neo-con sources in the Bush/Cheney Administration. ("If Al Qaeda resurges and Iraq goes to hell, do we re-invade??!!") Clinton finally articulated a counter-message to Obama's mantra of "being against the war from start"—forget the 2002 speech, concentrate on their voting records in the Senate—but the pushback comes much too late to be effective. (Read our post from March 1 2007. ) Obama offered an interesting analogy of "driving a bus into the ditch" and not having many ways to get back on course.
Russert is consistently disappointing in the MSNBC debates with dramatic "gotcha" questions and his linkage of Obama to Louis Farrakhan is part of a growing narrative that accuses Obama of anti-Semitic or Muslim leanings. "I've been very clear, in terms of me believing that what he has said is reprehensible and inappropriate," Obama said. "And I have consistently distanced myself from him."
Obama has spoken against anti-Semitism—remember his speech at Ebenezer Baptist?—and his "denunciation of Farrakhan was blunt and pointed," notes Earl Ofari Hutchinson at The Huffington Post. "But he did not reject Farrakhan's implied endorsement." That opened a window for Clinton:
CLINTON: I just want to add something here, because I faced a similar situation when I ran for the Senate in 2000 in New York. And in New York, there are more than the two parties, Democratic and Republican. And one of the parties at that time, the Independence Patty, was under the control of people who were anti-Semitic, anti- Israel. And I made it very clear that I did not want their support. I rejected it. I said that it would not be anything I would be comfortable with. And it looked as though I might pay a price for that. But I would not be associated with people who said such inflammatory and untrue charges against either Israel or Jewish people in our country.
And, you know, I was willing to take that stand, and, you know, fortunately the people of New York supported me and I won. But at the time, I thought it was more important to stand on principle and to reject the kind of conditions that went with support like that.
RUSSERT: Are you suggesting Senator Obama is not standing on principle?
CLINTON: No. I'm just saying that you asked specifically if he would reject it. And there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting. And I think when it comes to this sort of, you know, inflammatory -- I have no doubt that everything that Barack just said is absolutely sincere. But I just think, we've got to be even stronger. We cannot let anyone in any way say these things because of the implications that they have, which can be so far reaching.
OBAMA: Tim, I have to say I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word "reject" Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word "denounce," then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.
There is a difference between to "denounce" and "reject"—Obama does not share Farrakhan's views (denounce) and the minister will have no formal campaign role (reject)—and Obama has previously "denounced " Farrakhan's views. Obama does not want to alienate the thousands of Farrakhan followers or sympathizers in the black community, and, at the same time, he is assembling such a broad coalition that he doesn't want to alienate white voters. It was to Obama's credit that he conceded the point because it's a no-win situation. It's worth noting Republican candidates are rarely asked to "denounce" or "reject" right-wing social conservatives or even racists, but, it's par for the course for black politicians. Meanwhile, the "denunciation" could be a phyrric victory for Clinton, according to many of the comments at The Daily Voice.
Finally, there was no absolutely discussion of urban issues. Cleveland has the highest home foreclosure rate in the country and the candidates should have discussed the mortgage crisis, housing and jobs.
This probably will be the last debate between Clinton and Obama. It's too bad the debate ended on such an anti-climactic note. We'll see what happens on March 4.
Democrats Clash on Trade, Health, Rival Tactics [NYT]
Hillary Slams Ohio on Deceptive OH Mailers [Talk Left]
AP Fact Check: Clinton, Obama and NAFTA [AP]
Russert Leads the Boys in a Hillary Hit Job [HuffPo]
Hanity Again Linked Obama to Farrakhan [Media Matters]
Obama's Farrakhan Dilemma [HuffPo]
Obama Denounces Farrakhan [The Daily Voice]
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