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Clinton, Obama Face Off in Texas

Eric Scheie expected nothing less than gladiatorial combat at Thursday's debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- but the major event of the night turned out to be yet another display of emotion from Senator Clinton.

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Eric Scheie

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February 22, 2008 - 12:30 am

Considering Barack Obama’s victories in eleven consecutive primaries, and Hillary Clinton’s certain fate if nothing changes for her, I turned on my TV set expecting sparks to fly at tonight’s debate.

In various media warmup accounts, sparks were predicted. This local report had me almost drooling in anticipation of gladiatorial combat:

It’s also fitting that it’s right in the middle of all the UT sports complexes. The debate itself will be in an arena where they sometimes have martial arts, and it’s expected to be a real fight.

[...]

As for the questions, they’re still working on those. But they expect it could be a real fight. Tonight’s debate could be Hillary’s last stand.

“She knows her back’s against the wall,” King told News 4.

I would expect some sparks.

When I read that, I was almost hoping that Hillary would go for the jugular, and maybe even take on Michelle Obama’s “For the First Time in My Adult Lifetime, I’m Really Proud of My Country” remark.

Then there was this Dallas prediction:

Both campaigns anticipate a feisty debate on issues including immigration, health care and the economy – as well as some personal criticism. Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson criticized Mr. Obama for agreeing to debate Mrs. Clinton “in states where he is behind … [and not] in states where he is ahead, like Wisconsin.” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said: “We expect she’ll be very aggressive in the debate.”

It seemed obvious to me that if ever there was a time for the boring Hillary to take some risks, it would be tonight. I was thinking that tonight is her chance to really show the world that the she’s more hawkish of the two, and therefore in a better position than Obama to beat McCain.

FWIW, I think despite what the polls show, Hillary really is a stronger candidate against McCain, which is why I was hoping she’d lose handily tonight.

Obamamania is in full swing now, but two weeks is a long time in American politics, and there’s more than eight months to go. America will have plenty of time to scrutinize Obama, his record, and everything else about him, and what is refreshing about him now will be old and stale by then.

I’m not alone in thinking this way. Here’s James Taranto on buyer’s remorse:

Obama has not yet quite won the nomination. If buyer’s remorse kicks in over the next 12 days–i.e., in time for the Ohio and Texas primaries–Mrs. Clinton may still have a chance. But if Obama has the thing clinched a few weeks from now, there will be plenty of time for disillusion before November. John McCain may be the luckiest politician since . . . well, George W. Bush.

Similarly, Margaret Carlson says the media are falling out of love with Obama:

She has to reduce Obama to an incompetent charlatan whispering sweet nothings in the country’s ear.

She also has a chance to make Michelle Obama fodder for the campaign after her ill-considered remark about feeling “proud” of her country for the first time in her adult life. Clinton may feel some hesitation after the beatings she took for blurting out things she didn’t mean, like insulting Tammy Wynette for standing by her man, then proceeding to do just that.

There aren’t many choices for Clinton. She has to make her campaign run at least as smoothly as Obama’s, keep up the drumbeat that he can’t be trusted, force a huge error at one of the debates, and be ready to hijack Michigan’s and Florida’s delegates.

If Obama were in her place, his obituary would have been written today. But no one gets rich betting against the Clintons.

OK, so much for the warmup. I watched the debate, and sparks only flew once or twice.

For this debate to have done much to change the status quo, either Obama had to blow it badly, or Hillary had to seriously kick ass. Neither happened — not by a long shot.

Appearance-wise, they both looked good, especially Hillary, who had the best make-up job to date.

Tactically, Obama is getting better and better at these debates, and he is not letting Hillary land many punches. Moreover, he is scoring repeatedly, as he did when he characterized Hillary’s plagiarism charge as “getting into silly season“:

OBAMA: And the notion that I had plagiarized from somebody who was one of my national co-chairs…

(APPLAUSE)

… who gave me the line and suggested that I use it, I think, is silly, and…

(APPLAUSE)

… you know, this is where we start getting into silly season, in politics, and I think people start getting discouraged about it…

(LAUGHTER)

Amazingly, this caused Hillary to actually pursue the plagiarism charge further, and she made a remark which not only drew boos from the crowd, but became the AP’s lead headline — Clinton: Obama ‘Change You Can Xerox’:

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton accused presidential rival Barack Obama of political plagiarism Thursday night, but drew boos from a Democratic debate audience when she ridiculed him as the candidate of “change you can Xerox.”

Obama dismissed the charge out of hand, then turned the jeers to applause when he countered, “What we shouldn’t be doing is tearing each other down, we should be lifting the country up.”

The exchange marked an unusually pointed moment in an otherwise civil encounter in the days before March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio — contests that even some of Clinton’s supporters say she must win to sustain her campaign for the White House.

Yes, I’m afraid the “change you can Xerox” line was the most exciting part of the evening. (But even that left unanswered questions. Did the Xerox corporation pay Hillary to say that instead of “photocopy”? Or did she infringe their trademark?)

It’s worth noting that both sober blogger Ann Althouse and drunk blogger Stephen Green got bored with tonight’s debate.

While the CNN pundits thought that Hillary redeemed herself at the end with the closing line, Stephen thought it was a preview of her concession speech:

7:43pm “I am honored to be here with Barack Obama.” “Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine.” “We have support from our family and friends.” What you just heard was a preview of Hillary’s concession speech. And it got the biggest cheers I’ve ever heard for her.

He’s right about the cheers. It was her shining moment, and she just sat there radiantly in what was another one of her rare but now signature displays of emotion. Whether it will turn things around, I don’t know.

“Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine” did have a ring of emotional finality to it, and it seemed to me that she was purposely, emotionally invoking fate, and in an almost maudlin, even torch song manner. This was on the heels of her tacit admission that what had tested her was Bill’s disloyalty. Perhaps once again, people will “realize” that she is human, and vote for her. Megan McArdle(guest-blogging at InstaPundit) also referred to it as “Hillary’s farewell address,” and thinks it will help her:

I think she probably picked up a lot of votes with that closing speech, but getting more votes in Ohio and Texas will not be enough; she needs to get nearly all of them.

Obviously, I’m not a Hillary supporter. But now I have that feeling of sympathy that often wells up when an opponent is defeated; once we can afford to be generous once they are no longer much of a threat. …

But might it be too early? After all, earlier it was made clear that for Hillary to be counted out, a stake might have to be driven through her heart.

Whether Hillary’s closing was spontaneous or a very clever display of emotion, for me it didn’t make up for the shameless way she gloated over her attempted 1993 health care plan from hell which would have made criminals out of violators. The crucial distinction between Hillary and Obama is that he seems hesitant to use the heavy hand of the state to impose socialized medicine at gunpoint. Hillary can’t wait to have a government mandate, and says so:

We would not have a social compact with Social Security and Medicare if everyone did not have to participate. I want a universal health care plan!

That last line was positively brayed, just as she has brayed it before. I think she absolutely means what she says, and it’s not just a campaign promise, but a serious threat.

In my view, Hillary lost on health care, but hey, if you’re a socialist, she probably won.

On the crucial issue of Iraq, Obama lost, but if you’re a pacifist, he won. Still, I think he’s cemented himself into a tough spot with this:

OBAMA: But it also means using our military wisely. And on what I believe was the single most important foreign policy decision of this generation, whether or not to go to war in Iraq, I believe I showed the judgment of a commander in chief. And I think that Senator Clinton was wrong in her judgments on that.

(APPLAUSE)

Now, that has consequences — that has significant consequences, because it has diverted attention from Afghanistan where al Qaeda, that killed 3,000 Americans,
are stronger now than at any time since 2001.

Diverting attention from al Qaeda? Excuse me, but isn’t al Qaeda in Iraq too? Or will they just pull out of Iraq if we do?

On Iraq I think Hillary wins, and I also think she wins on the subject of not holding talks with Cuban and Iranian leaders without preconditions. Obama’s foreign policies strike me as naive and pacifistic, and again, I think he’ll be an easier candidate for McCain to beat.

As to who won tonight’s debate, I’d have to say neither. Both were careful and well prepared, with their positions on most issues differing only slightly. Had Hillary not stolen the show with the last minute touch of torch song emotion, I’d have said Obama won it, but barely.

However, this election has repeatedly shown that any display of emotion on the part of Hillary Clinton is a major event.

Whether “we’re going to be fine” is quite another matter.

Eric Scheie is a licensed California attorney (UC Berkeley ’78; USF Law School ’82) currently living in the Philadelphia area. A registered Republican, war-supporting, small “l” libertarian and self-styled “culture war traitor” he writes (often satirically) about cultural issues and politics at ClassicalValues.com.

Eric Scheie blogs at Classical Values.
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