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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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%
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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