Before The Scramble To The Spin Room, Some Thoughts

For a solid hour, the Democratic presidential candidates ganged up on Clinton, and her vote in favor of the Lieberman-Kyl resolution severed as their cri de coeur. At least six questions pivoted back to Clinton’s vote, which her opponents, especially Edwards and Dodd and later Obama, claimed was a permission slip for the Bush Administration to bomb in Iran.

Moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams gave Clinton’s rivals a wide berth to hone in. Subjects included: her non-public records in the National Archives, on Social Security, on her experience and on her electability. By the midpoint of the debate, the attacks against Clinton had been so fierce that both Dodd and Richardson chastised the rest of the field for being meanies.

Democrats watching tonight heard the entire dossier against Clinton. Maybe too much. There were so many charges strung one after the other that voters could be forgiven if they suffered from motion blindness. Who said what, exactly? Did any one candidate distinguish themselves above the din?

And if the Iran vote turns out to be the force that finally convinces Democrats to doubt her capacity to be president and their nominee, then tonight’s debate will be seen, in retrospect, as the turning point in the race. Tonight, Clinton played defense more than she has in any of the other debates, but she did not seem overly defensive.

From a policy standpoint, her arguments about foreign policy were generally credible and substantive, but her strategic ambiguity on Social Security still sounds puzzling and her defense of Eliot Spitzer's proposal to provide illegal immigrants with driver's licenses -- oh wait, was she defending the approach or the idea of dealing with the issue? The debate was not supposed to end this way!

Strategic ambiguity in this case may have provided the media with the anti-Clinton sound-bite it has long been craving. In real time, the way Clinton answered this question provided her opponents with a point of evidence to attack her credibility and character.

In the long run -- or in aggregate -- is this enough? As in -- enough to generate an anti-Clinton movement among Democrats? Probably not.

Clinton did a fair job early on by trying to inoculating herself against all the complaints by pointing out – or reminding Democrats – that she is a Clinton and the current president is a Bush.

Edwards seemed to channel Joe Trippi’s surgical sound bite repository. Too glib? Spot on? Some of his answers were memorable.

Obama’s criticisms were about philosophy and process; about another eight years of polarizing politics; about the approach to the issue, rather than the issue itself. Twice at the end he showed his sense of of humor -- very effectively.

It is too soon to tell whether Obama sufficiently abandoned his inner McClellan to satisfy some
of his allies and pacify his donors. He may not have met the expectations of the press, but those expectations are fairly ethereal. Obama will argue against Clinton on his own terms; he will not throw sound bites at her. He does not lack the fortitude to craft a zinger, he just doesn’t, as a matter of course, like to traffic in them – they are too base, too customary, too politics-as-usual for him. There is a reason why Obama only compared Clinton’s foreign policy to Bush-Cheney Lite once – he felt he had gone to too far.

So – on his own terms, yes, Obama did not temporize and drew strong contrasts with Clinton.
But:

(a) Do voters have the same standards that Obama does? Do they see the world the same way he does?

(b) The groundwork for Democrats to mistrust Clinton isn’t yet fertile. Maybe this debate
plows it a bit.

(c) Does John Edwards do a better job of talking to Democratic voters on their level, wherever that level is?

Other thoughts:

--Bill Richardson gave two substantive answers on education policy and energy policy. His domestic policy bona fides shined tonight.

--Through no fault of their own, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden seemed like Statler & Waldorf. Except for Dodd’s remarks on Iran at the beginning of the debate and Biden’s challenge to Rudy Giuliani, the format and moderators deliberately sent them to the back of the stage.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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