At last, Chris Dodd has made a significant contribution to the Democratic presidential race.
The Connecticut Senator, who hopelessly hovers near zero percent in polls and who seems to begin an inordinate number of his answers in debates with “I agree with what everyone else has said so far,” violated his own prohibition on making waves Tuesday night and took a very public swipe at Barack Obama in the latest Democratic presidential debate.
Asked by moderator Keith Olbermann to expand on a little-noticed statement he made last week about Mr. Obama’s provocative comments about possible unilateral military engagement in Pakistan, Mr. Dodd lectured his colleague from Illinois on the “highly inappropriate” nature of his rhetoric, suggesting that words like his could destabilize the government of President Pervez Musharraf, who is ostensibly an American ally in the war against terrorism.
“I think it was wrong for him to say what he did in that matter,” Mr. Dodd concluded.
And with that, he returned to his familiar on-stage obscurity. But his shot was enough to set off a contentious back and forth between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that played to what is emerging as an unexpected advantage for Mr. Obama on foreign policy.
“I find it amusing” the Illinois Senator said in response to Mr. Dodd’s rebuke, “that those who helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me for making sure that we are on the right battlefield and not the wrong battlefield in the war against terrorism.”
Mr. Obama then repeated his statement that military action in Pakistan should not be ruled out even if Mr. Musharraf were to object, noting (as he did at the outset of the debate) that those responsible for 9/11 reside not in Iraq but in the mountains of Pakistan. His response drew enthusiastic applause from the union member audience in Soldier Field, in Mr. Obama’s Chicago.
Then Mrs. Clinton, a child of the Chicago suburbs, was offered a chance to chime in, and the woman who called Mr. Obama “naïve” after their last foreign policy dust-up once again sought to play the role of seasoned stateswoman. Candidates for President should not engage in “hypotheticals,” she said before echoing Mr. Dodd’s claim that even talking about overruling Mr. Musharraf could destabilize a government that “is fighting for its life against the Islamic regime that is in bed with al Qaeda.” Unwisely, she didn’t stop there—perhaps, it seemed, because Mr. Obama has gotten under her skin.
“You can think big,” she said, clearly referring to her chief rival, “but remember: You shouldn’t always say everything you think when you’re running for President, because it can have consequences.”
For one of only two times during the debate, an audible chorus of boos and hisses erupted in the crowd. Mrs. Clinton’s words, especially on the heels of her vocal and well-publicized defense of lobbyists over the weekend, smacked of the Beltway arrogance that the Democratic grassroots so reviles and for which they blame much of the rush to war in 2002 and 2003. It was the perfect set-up for Mr. Obama, who was then given the last word on the subject by Mr. Olbermann.
“We’re debating the most important foreign policy decision that we face,” he said, seizing the populist ground Mrs. Clinton’s answer had left wide open, “and the American people have a right to know. It’s not just Washington insiders who should be a part of the debate that has to take place.”
There were no boos when he finished talking.
Tuesday night’s debate came at the end of a day that began with perhaps the most encouraging poll for the Clinton campaign yet released—a 48-to-26 percent lead for the New York Senator over Mr. Obama nationally, with John Edwards down to just 12 percent.
Mr. Obama, until very recently, has been running his campaign as if he were the front-runner, rattling off bland, clock-killing answers in debates that seemed more aimed at minimizing gaffe potential than at stirring any kind of passion. Mrs. Clinton has pursued the same basic strategy, but since she has been the front-runner from the beginning, it’s actually worked for her.
But Mr. Obama’s performance Tuesday night, coming off his recent clash with Mrs. Clinton over presidential meetings with anti-American world leaders, suggests a shift to a more aggressive campaign posture, one that recognizes the imperatives that come with running in second place behind a front-runner who is fueled by inevitability.
Suddenly, Mr. Obama is actively seeking to provoke confrontations with Mrs. Clinton—and it may be working. Consider the politics of the Pakistan question. It gives Mr. Obama a chance to play the right war/wrong war card, reminding Democrats that he was always against the Iraq war while Mrs. Clinton supported it.
But more than that, his posture seems intentionally designed to draw fire from the D.C. establishment, Senate lifers like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Dodd or Joe Biden, and the foreign policy “experts” who argued—to the hair-pulling dismay of the Democratic grassroots—for the Iraq war in the first place. Rather than simply scoring points off the ’02 war resolution vote—something that polls show Mr. Obama has failed to do, and probably can’t do – he is instead using the Pakistan question (and the world leaders issue last week) to frame the Democratic foreign policy debate as Old vs. New, meshing with the overall theme of this campaign. Let his opponents invoke their decades of Washington experience and lecture him on the 646 reasons the United States could never take unilateral action in Pakistan—for restless Democrats hungering for significant change, this only helps Mr. Obama.
That said, he’d be wise in the future to tread more carefully than he did Tuesday to avoid playing into the “naïve” caricature being pushed by the Clinton campaign: No one seemed to notice when he said that one of his first acts as President would be to telephone the “President of Canada”—a country that is, of course, governed by a Prime Minister.