In politics, just as in prizefighting, you look for your opponent's weakness and pound away at it. That's what Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been trying to do.
In last week's YouTube/CNN debate, Obama portrayed himself as a different kind of political leader, someone who is totally unlike President Bush. Asked whether he would be willing to meet with unfriendly dictators during the first year of his administration, Obama replied, "I would. The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration, is ridiculous."
Clinton portrayed herself as more experienced and knowledgeable. "I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year," she declared. "You don't promise a meeting until you know the intentions. I don't want to be used for propaganda."
She was going for Obama's weakness, his supposed lack of appropriate experience. And she kept hammering away at it the next day. "I thought that was very irresponsible and, frankly, naive, to say you could commit to meeting with [Venezuelan leader Hugo] Chavez and [Cuban leader Fidel] Castro or others within the first year," the senator from New York said in an Iowa radio interview.
Obama came back punching. "If there was anything irresponsible and naive," the senator from Illinois said on the radio, "it was to authorize George Bush to send 160,000 young American men and women into Iraq apparently without knowing how they were going to get back." Clinton's perceived weakness? That she's cautious and calculating and may be too willing to compromise with people like Bush.
Actually, it was not Obama but John Edwards who used the "T" word during the YouTube debate. Edwards asked, "Do you believe that compromise—triangulation—will bring about big change?" In response to his own question, he replied, "I don't." It was a clear insinuation that Clinton, like her husband, is a "triangulator" who believes in splitting the difference with her Republican opponents.
This Democratic fight is the qualifying round for the world heavyweight championship, so some trash talk is inevitable. "Senator Obama gave an answer that he is regretting today," Clinton asserted on the radio. Obama's response? "Do you want to talk about irresponsibilities? Look at the vote to authorize George Bush to send our troops into Iraq without an exit plan."
The next day brought round three. At a rally in New Hampshire, Obama once again defended his position that he would meet with leaders of unfriendly countries such as Syria and Iran. "I'm not going to avoid them. I'm not going to hide behind a bunch of rhetoric," Obama declared. "I don't want a continuation of Bush-Cheney. I don't want Bush/Cheney-lite. I want a fundamental change."
On CNN, Clinton shot back, " 'Bush/Cheney-lite'? I have been called a lot of things in my life, but 'Bush/Cheney-lite' has never been one of them before."
She added, "I think it is getting a little silly. Let's stay focused on what we would do to pursue a new form of diplomacy. We obviously have a difference about the role a president should and would play in such a new diplomatic endeavor."
An interviewer asked Clinton, "Based on the last 72 hours of this back-and-forth, is Barack Obama experienced enough to be president of the United States?" Her response: "The voters are going to have to draw those conclusions. Where we disagree, I think it is fair to draw that inference."
This exchange of blows was bound to happen. Nothing is going to change in the Democratic race unless another candidate knocks Clinton off her front-runner perch, which she is now defending.
Last week, Des Moines television station KCCI released a Research 2000 poll of prospective Iowa Democratic caucus-goers. Most of the interviewing was done after the July 23 debate. The poll showed Edwards leading, with Clinton and Obama both having dropped 6 points since May. What happened? Here's one theory, offered by Edwards at a National Urban League presidential forum: "We've had two good people, Democratic candidates for president, who spent their time attacking each other instead of attacking the problems that this country faces." As the audience laughed, Edwards smiled and said, "I got your attention with that one, didn't I?"