Hillary's inspiration deficit

Most people I have spoken to, and I think most commentators, found John Edwards to be much the most impressive candidate at last night’s Democratic debate in South Carolina. He at least conveyed a sense of urgent interest in the issues, which Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did not. Hillary was too busy attacking Obama, and Obama was too busy responding to her charges. Their squabbling was a depressing thing to watch.

As in previous debates, Hillary mostly out-argued Obama. As before, she was forceful and controlled, and he was muddled and hesitant. I think he succeeded in debunking her accusations, but he was far from impressive, and I often found myself having to give him the benefit of the doubt (for instance, when he explained, sort of, why he voted “present” rather than “no” to objectionable pieces of Illinois legislation). Hillary smiled as he stumbled, radiating smugness and contempt—not her most appealing posture.

She cannot believe, I imagine, that Obama routinely does business with slum landlords, or that he is less intent on widening access to affordable health care than she is, or that he is a secret, albeit wavering, supporter of the war in Iraq, or any of the other things she seemed to imply. Her chances of convincing Democratic voters that he is as feckless and vacillating a man as she says also seem slim. Then what is the tactical calculation? How is this misdirected aggression, which I would like to believe sullies her more than it hurts her intended victim, supposed to pay off?

Perhaps the idea is just to unsettle Obama and make him look weak. And he did look weak. He did not dare to rise above the quarrels the Clintons are picking with him—as the spirit of his campaign really obliges him to—and then having chosen to respond he failed to crush her, as I think a more effective debater could have. On the face of it, it is pretty audacious for Hillary Clinton, of all people, to attack Obama for lack of experience, for vacillation, for “failing to take responsibility”, for saying one thing and meaning another. A skilful debater could have shredded her for that, but this is not Obama’s strength. He seems to lack the instinct, and evidently the rhetorical means, to destroy an opponent—not something you could say of Hillary. If he fights the campaign the way the Clintons are forcing him to fight it, he puts himself at a big disadvantage.

After the debate, CNN aired an Obama ad: “There is no liberal America, no conservative America, there is only the United States of America.” Maybe it is just empty rhetoric, but I have to say my spirits lifted. After the debate’s mean-spirited back and forth, a little inspiration was welcome. That, for sure, is something Obama can do.