How do you stop the progress of a stratospheric object filled with rocket fuel? This was the Navy's task Wednesday and Hillary Clinton's task at Thursday night's debate in Austin, Texas. The Navy hit its mark. Hillary Clinton didn't. She didn't really even take a shot.
Clinton was occasionally aggressive, but not enough to shake up the dynamic that has her nearly tied in polls in the crucial March 4 primary states of Ohio and Texas. Clinton's game plan was to connect with voters, not to tear down Barack Obama. She took pains to show that she understood the concerns of regular folks and that she had plans to address them. She did this well at times, particularly in her final answer of the debate, but Obama turned in one of his strongest performances so far of this campaign. In an even match, the tie goes to the front-runner.
For weeks, Clinton campaign aides have been saying that when voters got a chance to see the two Democratic candidates side by side, it would stop Obama's momentum. Voters would see that Clinton is the more competent and durable candidate. The debates have often helped Clinton. Exit polls after the New Hampshire and Nevada contests asked voters if the debates had been important in helping them determine their vote. Many said yes, and the majority of those voters went with Clinton.
It's easy to see why Hillary likes debates. They match her natural rhythms the way the theater hall matches Obama's speech and body language. Clinton looks more at ease in the setting where she can knock out facts and offer specific details about her programs, like creating a trade prosecutor to monitor international agreements, or her plan to freeze foreclosures. Her performance in Austin no doubt bucked up her troops by reminding them why they liked her, and it gave anyone sitting on the fence more to think about.
Obama was strong, too, however, and that's a problem for Clinton. She and her campaign aides have been arguing for weeks that Obama is essentially a phony—a mere dispenser of hollow words—and yet he matched her on policy. For the first 45 minutes of the debate, the two were so close on the issues they could have been running mates. When Obama and Clinton got into a spat over their health-care plans, Clinton looked passionate and in command of the facts as she always does, but Obama did, too. Clinton essentially charged that Obama's plan was a fraud born of political cowardice, but Obama came back at her, repeatedly asserting that he merely had a different approach to achieving the same goal of universal coverage. He may or may not be right on the merits, but for the viewing audience, there was nothing in the exchange that suggested he was her junior on the issue.
In the end, the attack on Obama as a substance-free orator may backfire. It lowers the bar for him, so that when he offers detailed plans and speaks of his accomplishments, he sounds commanding. The attack also gives him an opening to take umbrage on behalf of his supporters, one of the easiest and most effective political postures to take. Obama flamboyantly exploited this opportunity. Noting that Clinton lately had been urging voters to turn from him by saying, "Let's get real," Obama said, "The implication is that the people who've been voting for me or are involved in my campaign are somehow delusional."
Clinton was the only one who had a bad moment. As she pressed her campaign's overheated charges about Obama's plagiarism, she tried to turn one of his phrases against him. "It's not change you can believe in," she said, "it's change you can Xerox." There were groans from the audience in the hall and perhaps across the land. (I think even my kids stirred in their beds.) As prepared quips go, it wasn't clever and had the air of something cooked up by committee. (I asked the campaign if Clinton was the author of the line, but they have not responded. Perhaps no one wants to claim authorship for the clunker.) The plagiarism debate is silly—politicians borrow (particularly from their supporters), and Obama's sin wasn't egregious. By insisting on the point, Clinton looked small.
At the end of the debate, moderator Campbell Brown asked both candidates when they had been tested in their lives. This was a different question than the one about experience we've been discussing throughout this campaign. It sought to look into the background of each candidate for a crucible that may have seasoned them for the string of crises they'll face as president and find the moment they'll draw on for guidance and strength when they're in the Situation Room. John McCain has had several such moments in his life, and he is certain to raise the issue of testing repeatedly and relentlessly against either Obama or Clinton.
Obama didn't give much of an answer perhaps, because he may have no single moment. He talked about his troubled time as a young man and then mentioned his period as a community organizer. It wasn't a very nourishing answer. Clinton said, "I think everyone knows I've lived through some crisis and challenges in my life" and was immediately applauded. Her husband's infidelity is so close to the surface, she need only flick at it to access the warm feelings people still have about her endurance. It wasn't much of an answer to the question, but Clinton then pivoted to talk about the tests the American people have to face and the suffering she has seen on the campaign trail. The answer may have been her best of the night—it showed her heart and a little humanity—which is why her campaign rushed a YouTube clip of it to supporters. It also won her the dubious achievement of being the night's best plagiarist. Clinton's answer contained a passage that matched one of John Edwards' well-known riffs and another that matched one of her husband's.