[digg-reddit-me]I wanted to call this post, “The End of Hillary 2008” but there were no “knockout blows” in this debate. Only the gradual erosion of Ms. Clinton’s candidacy and the demonstration of Barack Obama’s resilience.
On October 30, 2007, the Democratic candidates for president debated in Philadelphia. At the time, I noted that this debate might mark”The Beginning of the End of Hillary 2008“. I based this prediction on the fact that the fundamentals of this election year favor Senator Barack Obama, and that Ms. Clinton had just made a significant mistake that played into her perceived weaknesses. Many people scoffed – and the conventional wisdom of the time was that although Ms. Clinton made a large blunder, she hadn’t offered a large enough opening for Mr. Obama to take advantage of. It is hard to recall now how obvious it seemed then that Ms. Clinton would be the Democratic nominee.
Now tonight, 170 days later, and 10 days before the umpteenth “final showdown” between the candidates, they debated again. In the October debate, Ms. Clinton complained that Tim Russert and Brian Williams were “ganging up” on her because they pressed her to answer questions that she was trying to evade, most specifically regarding driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Tonight though Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos did gang up on Mr. Obama. They used a surrogate to ask if he was loved the country and the flag; they brought up the fact that he had once served on a charitable board with a former member of the Weather Underground; they of course mentioned Bittergate; they brought up again the comments of Reverend Wright. Ms. Clinton piled on – especially by trying to raise the issue of William Ayers, the former member of the Weather Underground who Mr. Obama knew from the charitable board and the University of Chicago and by saying, again, that Mr. Obama’s comments about “clinging” to religion, guns and nativism were elitist and out-of-touch. Watching her closely as she flung this mud – which had often been thrown at her in the past two decades – I thought I could see her squirm, as she refused to focus her eyes on anyone or anything in particular, looking up, then down, then left, and right, all awkward yet determined. I thought I could see Ms. Clinton’s conscience squirming as she tried to teach Mr. Obama the lesson that she had been taught: the only way to win is to ignore the issues and the truth as you know it, and try to bring down your opponent.
The National Review‘s Jonah Golberg halfway through the debate wrote on The Corner:
I’m no leftwing blogger, but I can only imagine how furious they must be with the debate so far. Nothing on any issues. Just a lot of box-checking on how the candidates will respond to various Republican talking points come the fall. Now I think a lot of those Republican talking points are valid and legitimate. But if I were a “fighting Dem” who thinks all of these topics are despicable distractions from the “real issues,” I would find this debate to be nothing but Republican water-carrying.
I think if he were more honest, Mr. Golberg might say he did find the debate to be “nothing but Republican water-carrying” and that the issues the moderators and Ms. Clinton kept pressing were “valid and legitimate” points only if “valid and legitimate” points were defined to mean those issues which would help Republicans beat Mr. Obama.
It’s worth noting how far Hillary Clinton has come – as demonstrated in the following video which many redditors will be familiar with:
(h/t The Nation ‘s Ari Melber.)
In the debate tonight, Ms. Clinton attacked Mr. Obama as an elitist, attacked him by invoking 9/11 (some 4 times by my informal count), and attacked him for associating with a former terrorist (a charge which Obama parried very well, pointing out that President Bill Clinton had pardoned several members of the same group that Ms. Clinton was attacking Obama for having served on a charitable committee with.) Ms. Clinton has gone from the foremost victim of the Drudge-style smears and gaffes to the foremost practitioner of the varied and dark arts of dirty politics (now that Karl Rove has retired). Tonight’s debate on ABC provided her with an ideal platform with sympathetic questioners who aided her.
And yet here is the key: Obama scored no knockouts, but he kept going, and he kept talking about the policy issues that matter to most Americans without looking like he was dodging the questions. He answered, then pivoted. Again. And again. And again. And it worked.
What his candidacy comes down to is this: he is betting on the American people. That’s why, when confronted with the incendiary statements of Reverend Wright, he didn’t do the typical political move and disown him; he condemned the comments and sought to explain why he still admired the man who said them, speaking to Americans as if they were adults.
Mr. Obama’s candidacy is not magical, as it did feel for a time in the days after Iowa. What his candidacy is is grounded and methodical and competent and substantiative and groundbreaking.
Maybe there’s a bit of magic mixed up in there too – but it’s not in the candidate himself. It’s in the hopes of the people who are coming into the political process to support him; it’s in the sense that America is righting itself after many, many rocky years; it’s in the movement that is swelling around his candidacy; it’s in the connection between Barack Obama’s story and the nation’s; and it’s in the fact that the candidate who is winning is the one who was willing to bet on the good sense of the American people.