2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Clinton's Missed Opportunity

 

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Howard  Kurtz
2/27/08 Washingtonpost.com

 

What happened to "shame on you"?

Hillary Clinton's anger over the weekend at Barack Obama's attacks on her health-care plan flattened into a wonky debate at last night's debate, with the former first lady earnestly arguing about mandates and cost control. Now obviously you can't appear too angry in a televised face-off, but her sense of righteous indignation evaporated in the torrent of details, as the candidates defended their respective plans.

Great. But we've heard this debate a dozen times before. It's not a game-changer in Texas and Ohio. And it hasn't exactly worked for her in the last 10 primaries.

Then it was on to Hillary's charge that Barack was fibbing by saying she had supported NAFTA in the past.

"I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning," even though she didn't have a "public position" on the trade treaty--given the inconvenient detail that her husband had pushed it through Congress. In other words, she was against that treaty before her husband was for it.

Then it was off to another wonkfest on trade policy.

Brian Williams gave her a chance to say that Obama wasn't prepared to be commander in chief. She ducked again, perhaps not wanting to give the Republicans ammo if he becomes the nominee. Instead, she said Obama, despite his opposition to the war, voted to fund it just like she did. And besides, he threatened to bomb Pakistan! And he would meet with bad dictators! Obama, naturally, came back to his 2002 denunciation of the war. And he said he would go after al-Qaeda types in Pakistan if the Pakistani government refused to act.

Williams and Tim Russert threw most of the tough questions at Clinton during the first part of the debate, in part because they were pressing her to back up her charges against her Democratic rival.

Obama deftly used humor to defuse Hillary's mockery of him as a messiah (when MSNBC played the wrong tape), then pivoted to his accomplishments to show he's not all talk and no action. Oh, and there's nothing "romantic" or "silly" in his rhetoric.

The moderators began pressing Obama until more than an hour in, when Russert cited the senator's second thoughts about accepting public financing in the fall: "You seem to be waffling . . . Why won't you keep your word?" Obama sidestepped by saying he's not yet the nominee. "You may break your word," Russert responded. He also asked about Louis Farrakhan's endorsement, and Obama quickly denounced him as an anti-Semite. He backed off and complied when Clinton shrewdly demanded that he go further and reject Farrakhan's support.

Bottom line: Both candidates acquitted themselves well. But Hillary Clinton is trailing and needed to grab some kind of advantage in this, the last debate before the March 4 contests. And I don't see where she did that.

"For 90 minutes in Cleveland on Tuesday night," says the L.A. Times , "Clinton stung coolly and repeatedly at Barack Obama's weak spots, employing everything in her arsenal -- from her confident command of world affairs to a frosty smile that flickered every time she was displeased with his answers.

"But with a week left to go before the critical primary votes in Ohio and Texas, Clinton had to do more than chip away at Obama. To shake up her faltering campaign, she needed to shake him up . . .

"Yet judging from Obama's unruffled composure and measured responses through much of the debate, that moment of truth never came."

Boston Globe : "At times -- such as when she pushed him to denounce Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in stronger terms -- she seemed to go too far, but as the candidate who is trailing, she needed to take some risks and shake things up. In the end, she may have chafed some viewers but succeeded in taking the fight to Obama. Nonetheless, he seemed to emerge unscathed after skating through some verbal thin ice of his own."

Chicago Tribune : "On a night when she and Obama accused each other of distorting legislative records and clashed across the fine lines that divide them on policy, Clinton's complaint -- and her reference to a comedy sketch that portrayed the national media as fawning over Obama -- epitomized the frustrations of a candidate who has fallen from front-runner status to desperately needing a win in Ohio's March 4 primary."

New York Times : "By the end of the night, there was little evidence that Mrs. Clinton had produced the kind of ground-moving moment she needed that might shift the course of a campaign that polls suggest has been moving inexorably in Mr. Obama's direction for weeks.

"Instead, in contrast to other debates -- where she mixed a warm smile with a sharp attack -- she was stern and tense through most of the evening, speaking in an almost fatigued monotone as she recounted her criticisms of Mr. Obama, some of them new but many of them familiar. She often sat staring unsmiling at Mr. Obama and at Tim Russert of NBC News, who, yet again, presented himself as a tougher challenge to Mrs. Clinton's credentials than Mr. Obama himself."

New York Post : "Devoid of any real fireworks, last night's debate was a victory for Barack Obama.

"With the momentum behind him from 11 straight primary and caucus victories, Obama was confident, gracious and even presidential.

"Perhaps more than in any of the other 19 Democratic primary debates that have come before, it was possible to imagine Obama sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office.

"He's starting to give off that White House vibe."

Time's Mark Halperin gives Obama a B-plus : "Avoided lofty rhetoric and focused on presenting himself as cool, deliberative, and substantive. Well prepared and focused . . . Surprisingly unsunny and subdued-- almost dour." Hillary gets a B-minus : "Her conviction that the media is biased against her seemed to throw her off throughout, and she was too distracted by her frustration with Obama and the press to truly shine."

Andrew Sullivan gives the debate to Obama but also scolds him on Farrakhan:

"Does Obama understand that saying he has consistently denounced him is not the same as simply saying, 'I denounce him'? A weak response -- reminiscent of Dukakis. (By the way, why is it somehow only a question for Jewish Americans that Farrakhan is a fascist hate-monger? It's a question for all Americans.) Obama's Farrakhan response suggests to me he is reluctant to attack a black demagogue. Maybe he wants to avoid a racial melee. But he has one. He needs to get real on this. Weak, weak, weak. Clinton sees an opening and pounces. She wins this round. He is forced to adjust. His worst moment in any debate since this campaign started. I'm astounded he couldn't be more forceful. His inability to say by himself, unprompted, that Farrakhan's support repels him and he rejects it outright really unsettles me."

Those who are assuming an easy Democratic win this year, guess again: An LAT poll has McCain beating Hillary 46-40 and Obama 42 to 40, which is essentially a tie.

"The Arizona senator also scored higher marks than Clinton or Obama for experience and strength. On the issue of 'honesty and integrity,' he beat Clinton and was tied by Obama. McCain is viewed favorably by 61% of all registered voters, including a plurality of Democrats.

"And the survey showed McCain's advantages extend even to some domestic issues. On the economy, a subject that McCain has joked about his own lack of expertise, voters picked him over Democratic front-runner Obama as best able to lead by an 8-point margin -- 42% to 34%."

Speaking of John McCain, he raced over to reporters after his warmup act, Cincinnati radio host Bill Cunningham, lambasted Obama:

"Senator John McCain apologized Tuesday after a conservative radio host who helped introduce him before a rally used Senator Barack Obama's middle name, Hussein, three times, while disparaging him," the NYT says.

Cunningham "lambasted the national news media, drawing cheers from the audience, as being soft in their coverage of Mr. Obama compared to the Republican presidential candidates, declaring they should 'peel the bark off Barack Hussein Obama.' He went on to say, 'At one point, the media will quit taking sides in this thing and start covering Barack Hussein Obama.' "

Did I hear some Hillary aides cheering his assault on the media?

What awful staff work by the McCain campaign, since Cunningham (who later lambasted McCain and said he'd back Hillary) is well known as a conservative flame-thrower. And while McCain said he'd never met the talk show host, Cunningham told CNN last night that they had met twice. Still, I think McCain was able to contain the damage.

At Real Clear Politics, Tom Bevan wonders why Hillary kept the gloves on for so long:

"The Clinton campaign's biggest sin this cycle was buying into their own hype of inevitability early on and underestimating Barack Obama. They didn't attack him when they should have because they felt they didn't need to. Big mistake.

"Clinton's critique of Obama's foreign policy naivete is based on two things he saidlast summer. On July 24 in a CNN/YouTube debate, Obama said he would meet with America's enemies without preconditions. A week later (August 1), perhaps in an effort to shore up his tough side in response to the criticism he'd been taking from his first comment, Obama said he would launch a unilateral strike on terror targets inside Pakistan, a US ally . . .

"That was the moment when Clinton could have, and should have, pounded Obama relentlessly as being weak and inexperienced on foreign policy. It might not have been pretty, and it might have engendered a bit of a backlash at the time, but she could have at least tried to define Obama in a way that would hurt him over time, and raise the kind of doubts that might have prevented, or at least slowed, the migration of Democratic primary voters his way.

"But that boot-on-the-throat moment is long gone, and instead of returning to a recurring theme about her opponent Clinton looks like she's raising it in a desperate final pitch to save her hide."

Some very cogent observations from Slate's John Dickerson on how campaigns love to play the victim, as happened with the Obama-in-Somali-garb photo:

"It was just the opening a presidential candidate craves, a perfect opportunity to take umbrage. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe immediately cried foul, charging the Clinton campaign with 'the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we've seen from either party in this election . . . It's exactly the kind of divisive politics that turns away Americans of all parties and diminishes respect for America in the world.' . . .

"The swift reaction from the Obama forces was good damage control and even better umbrage-taking, a political tactic that has been elevated to a high art in the 2008 campaign. There was once a time when campaigns didn't respond to items like this for fear of giving them too much publicity. But if done correctly, candidates can exploit flamboyant displays of public upset to gain attention, raise money, put their opponents on the defensive, and distract from an unfavorable story.

"Last week, John McCain may have united his conflicted Republican Party on the umbrage platform. Conservative commentators once groused he was too liberal. Heck, he'd even been endorsed by the New York Times. Then the paper ran its widely criticized story about alleged conversations among McCain associates about an alleged improper relationship with a female lobbyist. The conservative world united in group indignation at the cheap shot by the liberal Times. Even better, McCain and the RNC got the chance to send out indignant fundraising letters . . .

"Hillary Clinton raised money by stirring outrage about a Washington Post story that mentioned her neckline and successfully took advantage of the crass statements by Chris Matthews and David Shuster. She also benefited from spontaneous indignation on her behalf. When Barack Obama said Clinton was 'likable enough' before the New Hampshire primary, he may have motivated her female supporters to give him a thumping for being so rude."

National Review's Rich Lowry says the audacity of hope doesn't extend to trade agreements:

"For Barack Obama, hope can triumph over anything, except for open trade with a neighboring country with an economy 1/20th the size of ours. Then, all is despair. Obama's culprit is Mexico, our third-largest trading partner. It is trade deals like NAFTA -- the 1993 accord eliminating tariffs among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada -- that 'ship jobs overseas and force parents to compete with teenagers for minimum wage at Wal-Mart,' Obama intones. Feel inspired yet? . . .

"Obama always says that politicians should tell voters what they need -- not what they want -- to hear. But no one in the Democratic party will emphatically say that trade is a net benefit to the U.S., even if it brings painful -- and ultimately unavoidable -- dislocations. Hillary Clinton always was lukewarm about NAFTA, and even Bill is skittering away from his legacy."

Lots of buzz about Dana Milbank 's column on a press breakfast with Hillary aides on Monday, at which spokesman Phil Singer challenged the assembled journalists for allowing Drudge to be their assignment editor, among other complaints:

"After the breakfast, one of the questioners asked Singer whether he could elaborate on the tax-return issue. He dismissed her with more hostility. When the reporter suggested that Singer was being antagonistic, the spokesman explained. 'Sixteen months into this,' he said, 'I'm just angry.' "

The New Republic's Eve Fairbanks has about had it with the Hillary press operation:

"Why . . . can't . . . Clinton's flacks . . . justwalk off the stage?? I'm not saying they should quit; some of them are probably giving Hillary good advice behind the scenes, and obviously the press aides have to give the occasional quote. But do they have to be so public? Do they have to, daily, float so many different arguments for Hillary's continued viability that so often insult reporters' intelligence? . . .

"I actuallylikeHillary, but I feel like all I read about anymore are her damned advisers."

And on MSNBC, Tucker Carlson , like Chris Matthews before him, goes off on the Hillary spokesmen:

"They're awful to the media. Let's be totally blunt. They're awful to the press. They treat the press like enemies. Howard Wolfson is always calling around threatening people -- threatening people, news organizations. They do that. People hate you if you do that. I mean they've earned the enmity of the press in my view. They have. It's been hard, but they've done it."

As for grumbling that Obama is relatively inaccessible to the press, Atlantic's Marc Ambinder says it's misguided to compare the situation to 2000, when G.W. Bush provided more access than V.P. Al Gore:

"There are some important differences. For one thing, the Bush press corps in 2000 liked their candidate personally and the Gore press corps -- at least, in the popular recounting -- found Gore aloof and unaccessible. In 2008, the McCain press corps, largely because of access, enjoys the company of Sen. McCain, and it's fair to say that some reporters covering Obama find him aloof and not especially interesting to interact with. It's a weird duality: Obama gets the best coverage of any candidate, anywhere, ever, and yet . . .

"But in fairness to the Obama campaign, whatever they've been doing . . . has sort of . . . worked."

And get this: Mike Huckabee practically begs for the media to smack him around, noting the flap over the NYT "affair" story on McCain:

"If anything it's helped John McCain and I'm kind of hoping the New York Times will take me on and run a nasty front page story -- may be the best thing that could happen to me, certainly was to him."

 
 
 

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