Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Clinton Strikes Soundbite Gold As Edwards Makes Case As Alternative

Hillary Clinton is both the most sure-handed and quick-footed in the Democratic debates.

She proved this again Wednesday night, striking gold with a brilliant late MSNBC-New Hampshire debate soundbite as the evening took on something of the quality of that famous California Stanford game. You take notes for a few hours, building a narrative, in this case, that former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., is truly making a move here as the audacious one, the candidate willing to take risks to position himself as the Hillary alternative.

Then presto, just like that with the remarkable touchdown return in which Cal navigated the prematurely marching band in the game, the story changes in an instant.

Debates are all about impressions and memorable lines. When MSNBC moderator Tim Russert pointed out that HRC had an apparent difference with her former president husband on a torture question, she responded, “Well, he’s not standing here right now.”

Having shown that she is now standing in front of her man, not beside him, Hillary softened it with the perfect follow up, “Well, I’ll talk to him later.”

It is spontaneity so good it just couldn’t be scripted. And it is the moment many will take away from the debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Hillary Clinton had strong moments before that and some subtle moves that will play well, such as her dropping in a mention of opposition to Yucca Mountain as the site for a federal nuclear waste repository. Showing early-in-the-calendar voters in Nevada that she’ll use a national stage on this long-running and highly controversial issue in that state surely earned her points.

Over the two-hour debate the candidates who performed the best in the race for getting their name on the pre-movie credits as Hillary’s co-star were Edwards and U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, Del.

If Edwards had campaigned with this much fight, and with the substance of the plans he has now, he may be running for re-election to the White House, not sharing beauty pageant time with the likes of lunatic Mike Gravel.

Edwards, again apologizing for voting to authorize military action in Iraq, said he had learned his lesson, but he strongly implied that Clinton had not and challenged her vote on a non-binding measure sponsored by U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, a move some senators, like Virginia's Jim Webb, see as setting a pretext for another war.

“I have no intention of giving George Bush the authority to take the first step toward a war with Iran,” Edwards said.

He added, “You can’t even give him the first step.”

Edwards’ answer to a question on the cap on Social Security taxes was the most in touch with middle America. He called for imposing it on income above $97,500 – but not lifting the ceiling until the $200,000 mark so as not to hit two-income families who are somewhere over $100,000, but not functioning by a long shot as wealthy.

His big swing of the evening connected, too. Edwards said he would kill funding for the health insurance plans of Members of Congress if they failed to enact health-care reform by July of 2009, six months after his theoretical inauguration. That sort of basic people-against-the-fat-cat-pols posturing really, really works here in Iowa as anyone who followed the congressional check-bouncing scandal two decades ago will remember.

For his part, Biden, who made a major move to put more staff on the ground in Iowa today, seemed the statesman, as well more affable than at previous debates where I think he came across as a bit put off by the nature of these political carnivals. The Senate had just voted in favor his plan for federalizing Iraq, a power-sharing arrangement with a weak central government, which gave him some heft on stage. He also was the first candidate of the night to call for lifting the cap on Social Security taxes so the government could collect from people making more than $97,500. Stylistically, Biden seemed less angry and more at ease than in previous debates. And that's big.

As far as U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is concerned, he’s playing a different game than everyone else. He's never fully engaged in the debates. In fact, he's like the smartest kid in the class who for whatever reasons doesn't participate much. Trailing Clinton in the polls nationally he’s not looking to use the debates to exact any flesh – at least not yet. He didn’t say anything tonight that stands out from his stump speaking, but if he can make it out of the primary process he will be exceptionally well positioned (perhaps unprecedentedly so) to appeal to Republicans and Independents. Obama is the anti-polarizer and his lyricism about hope seems all the more genuine when he refrains from the rhetorical bomb-throwing in the debates – something cable TV commentators were goading him to do for hours before MSNBC went live to the Dartmouth stage.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has showed some signs in recent debates, was back to earlier form. He’s one of the best campaigners I’ve seen in person in a quarter century of going to Iowa political events. But he’s uncomfortable on stage and his answer about Social Security – grow the economy – sounded Republican, which is perhaps why so many Republicans I know say they like him.

U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., fired off a good line about George W. Bush’s prediction that Hillary Clinton will be the nominee: “If I were Hillary Clinton I’d be worred,” Dodd said. “This was the same guy who said, ‘Way to go, Brownie.’”

Dodd didn’t take the chance to make the case that Republicans like Bush and Rove are hip to Hillary for cynical – and knowing – reasons. Remember Bush & Company can’t run the nation, but they did win two national elections.

Near the end of the debate one started to wonder if someone from a high school year book staff had jumped the Dartmouth fence into the college debate. Candidates were posed questions about public smoking, an issue now being handled by the states and local governments based on the varying cultures of the nation – and a matter that surely shouldn’t earn a spot with discussion of war and torture and Social Security. (Clinton and Obama got this one right, saying it is a local matter and not one for the Oval Office.)

And let’s not even get into the question about lowering the drinking age. Will somebody throw a Republican on stage to remind us that not every matter is for the federal government. Yes, local folks did segregate schools, but we got a lot of things right at the city and state levels without federal intervention.

For his part, former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, should have been asked to leave the stage when he essentially admitted to grand theft, Robin Hood style. When questioned about his own bankruptcy, Gravel said the matter wasn’t about personal failings. It was sticking it to the man.

“I stuck the credit card companies with $90,000 worth of bills and they deserved it,” Gravel said.

That’s the same argument the 20-year-old bartender who served me a Miller Lite the other night made about her credit-card debt. She had a nose ring. Gravel wants his hands on the U.S. Treasury. I''l take my odds with the bartender.

And finally, Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman who somehow seems to get a seat at the adult’s table for Thanksgiving with these debates, shows both spunk and arrogance, but not enough of the former to make up for the latter.

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