Clinton didn’t lay a glove on him. And she lost a lot of points on the only punch she did throw, the canned line about “change you can Xerox.”
Obama had just finished with a terrific parry of the plagiarism charge, including that we’re now in the “silly season,” but Clinton stepped in anyway and looked not only silly but petty.
The crowd loudly booed her.
In a debate where she needed desperately to change the dynamics of the race, she brought nothing new, repeating the fatal “Ready on Day 1” line several times.
She’s been selling that slogan all campaign, and people aren’t buying. (This is Madison Avenue 101, and she and her strategists have flunked the course.)
She over-answered several questions, talking on and on until Campbell Brown, the moderator, had to interrupt.
And one time, Clinton was asked an important question about whether she thought Obama was ready to be commander in chief, and she fobbed it off and then went back to the previous question on health care, which she had already discussed at extraordinary length.
People know she understands, and cares about, the health care issue. She didn’t need to say it 10 times. And it was a bad debating move not to answer the commander-in-chief question squarely the first time, since she has, indeed, strongly implied that Obama is not up to the task.
Her opening and closings were strong, as befits the intelligent, well-prepared, and disciplined person that she is.
And she did hit a grace note at the very end, saying, "No matter what happens… I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored."
As my friend John Nichols pointed out, it was though she were rehearsing her withdrawal speech.
For someone who couldn’t even bring herself to give a concession speech (or even a concession statement after the Wisconsin primary two days before), she’s a traveled a considerable distance.
She was definitely in a box Thursday night. If she tried to scuff up Obama, she ran the risk of tarnishing the putative Democratic nominee and getting the party regulars (and superdelegates) furious at her. But if she didn’t point out his shortcomings, her chances of gaining ground would be slim.
For some reason, she chose the high road this time, except for “Xerox.” Maybe she’s leaving it to her surrogates or to her new 527 group to go the low road. Or maybe she senses her time is up.
For his part, Obama gave his best debate performance yet.
He never stumbled.
He gave succinct responses on the economy, the Bush tax cuts, and trade (though he cut have hit NAFTA harder, it being Bill Clinton’s baby, baptized by Hillary, as David Sirota has noted). He answered the immigration question well, endorsing the Dream Act, which allows immigrant children “who through no fault of their own are here” to get a higher education.
His response to her “actions speak louder than words” line was brilliant. He first listed his accomplishments (the actions he’s taken), and then he talked up the importance of words.
“Senator Clinton and I share a lot of policy positions,” he said, and the debate proved his point. “But if we can’t inspire the American people to get involved in their government and if we can’t inspire them to go beyond the racial divisions and the religious divisions and the regional divisions that have plagued our politics for so long, than we will continue to have the kind of gridlock and nonperformance in Washington.”
That was one of the biggest applause lines of the night.
Throughout the debate, Obama stressed the political importance of inspiring and mobilizing the public.
“The changes are only going to come about if we’re able to form a working coalition for change,” he said. “Because people who were benefiting from the current tax code are going to resist. The special interests and the lobbyists are going to resist.”
It was a line that resonated especially Thursday night, coming as it did on the same day the John McCain lobbyist scandal broke.
And while Obama didn’t touch that one, he did make a persuasive case why he would be the strongest challenger to McCain.
And that case rests primarily on Iraq.
“It is going to be much easier for the candidate who was opposed to the concept of invading Iraq in the first place to have a debate about the wisdom of that decision than having to argue about the tactics subsequent to the decision,” he said.
Clinton didn’t even offer a response to that argument.
Obama also pointed out that McCain said he’s willing to have our troops “over there for 100 years,” and Obama stressed how devastating that would be not only for our troops but for our economy.
And then he got off a good, clean shot at his likely Republican opponent: “As John McCain says, he doesn't really understand the economy that well. It is clear from his embrace of George Bush's policies that he doesn't.”
Obama kind of coasted at the end, knowing perhaps that he’d done all he needed to do. He didn’t make a blunder, he defended himself well, and he appeared calm, knowledgeable, and Presidential.
Clinton had her best moment in her final answer, alluding to the personal crisis she and Bill went through and then saying it was “nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country.” She made the point well when she talked movingly about the maimed troops she saw at a San Antonio hospital. And then she closed with her “absolutely honored” nod to Obama.
But I doubt this flourish was nearly enough.