Well, that was a short death spiral. Hillary Clinton is back to winning debates, something she'd been doing regularly until two weeks ago, when she seemed to put all of her mistakes into one debate performance. In the interim, she's been defending herself against anger over question planting and accusations of playing the gender card. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that one of her strongest moments of the evening was when she was asked about her gender. Stringing together lines she's been testing on the campaign trail, she won one of the night's biggest crowd reactions and looked natural and approachable in a back-and-forth with pregnant CNN questioner Campbell Brown.
Clinton ran no risk of looking weak by talking about her gender, because she was kneeing her opponents in the groin. Two weeks ago, Clinton had tried to stay above the fray, which made her look evasive and left her opponents' attacks unanswered. No more. For each candidate, she had an attack prepared to answer their jabs at her. She said that John Edwards was parroting Republican talking points and slinging mud. She attacked Barack Obama for not proposing universal health care, knocking his legitimate policy alternative as a failing lack of will. She also swatted at Obama in a discussion over Social Security when she willfully overestimated the cost of his tax increase to fix the program.
Obama couldn't let that stand. He immediately responded by comparing Clinton to Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. He was booed. Obama has now compared Clinton to Bush, Cheney, Giuliani, and Romney. When he makes the least little claim about Clinton, her staffers roll in the fainting couches, clutch their breast, and gasp, "What happened to the politics of hope?" I'm not sympathetic to the act, but Obama went too far here. He didn't have to compare Clinton to Giuliani and Romney. It was cheap and thoroughly without the art and lightness he displays on the stump. It's not a huge gaffe, but it wasn't in sync with the author who wrote The Audacity of Hope (which I just re-read for Slate's audio book club).
The debate returned to the question of giving licenses to illegal immigrants, the topic that had bedeviled Clinton in the last debate. This time it was Obama's turn to get flummoxed. On the substance, he was so circuitous that CNN's Wolf Blitzer had to remind him that the question "is sort of available for a yes or no answer." (Wolf was possibly returning the favor from a previous debate where Obama scolded him.) Obama couldn't argue that the complexity of the issue required a longer answer, because he'd dinged Clinton for wrestling with the same complexity in the last debate. In fact, he listed her uncertainty on the issue as item No. 1 when asked why she wasn't qualified to be president. But just minutes later when Wolf Blitzer pressed him on his position on the matter, Obama tried to duck by claiming the question of licenses was a distracting wedge issue. If it was a wedge issue, he was in part responsible for making it so. If Clinton had done this zigzag, it would get her the split-screen treatment from the Edwards campaign.
How much does this debate matter? It depends what Iowa caucus voters saw and what they hear in the days afterward. That's the focal point for the Democratic race, in which all the candidates are bunched up in state polls. For a period during the Clinton and Obama exchanges, it seemed like the evening was locking in the idea that the race is just between those two, but Edwards' resilient Iowa support probably won't be affected by that dynamic on stage. The older women who are Clinton's base will love her gender answer. The Obama and Edwards voters won't be disappointed with their men. They weren't great, but both did well enough not to lose any voters. But they also didn't do anything particularly to grow their vote; doing so will ultimately depend on their ability to make the winning case for themselves more than their ability to tear Clinton down. (Luckily for them, that task is mostly done in the work off the debate stage.)
The most damning problem with Clinton's last debate performance was that she provided evidence for her opponents' claims that she was calculating and lacked candor, perhaps her biggest potential weakness. She gave no such opportunities in this debate. (Her weak answers on Social Security and NAFTA will be harder to exploit.) When Obama and Edwards tried to force Clinton into a stumble, they were booed by the occasionally raucous audience. That seemed to make them back off.
Who knows what motivated the booing. It could have been Hillary partisans. It could have been that the audience didn't like to hear the attacks. Clinton, for her part, only counter-punched, which may be why when she got pointed the crowd tolerated it. Or it could be that the people in the room, like most Democratic voters, wanted to hear the candidates on the issues. Even if the top-tier candidates are pretty close to one another in their positions, people still like to hear what they have to say on their favorite topics.
Joe Biden appealed to this civic sentiment by telling everyone to stop bickering when he got his first chance to speak—which marked the end of the most heated portion of the debate. For a guy who was mocked at the first candidate forum for his penchant for windy oratory, Biden continues to give nourishing answers in a winning, let's-get-real tone.
Biden also appeared to be the only one of Clinton's rivals to smile when Clinton gave her winning answer to the gender question. The cutaway shots were not kind to her other rivals. The women working for the male candidates should tell them to not look so dour when the woman candidate on stage is talking about progress for members of her gender. Acknowledging that fact with a little smile makes you look generous to the women who make up the largest voting bloc in those crucial caucus and primary states. Also, if Hillary's really back on her game, she might be in a position one day to really give them something to frown about.