If polls showed Barack Obama 23 points ahead of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, then he would have been the easy winner of Wednesday’s latest Democratic debate and we’d all be wondering why Mrs. Clinton was so reluctant to engage the front-runner.
But it is Mrs. Clinton who has the big lead, both in New Hampshire and nationally, and so it is Mrs. Clinton who scored—yet again—by sticking to the front-runner’s script in the debate last night at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. For his part, Mr. Obama passed, yet again, on a high-profile chance to fuel his second-place candidacy with a badly needed sense of urgency.
NBC’s Tim Russert, eschewing the lengthy introductory remarks that previous moderators have offered, began the questioning immediately at the top of the broadcast, asking Mr. Obama whether he would guarantee that no U.S. troops would be in Iraq at the end of his first term, more than five years from now.
In responding, Mr. Obama had two choices: He could use the question to call attention to Mrs. Clinton’s vulnerabilities within the Democratic Party on Iraq and to challenge her deceptive and self-serving claim that she didn’t believe she was actually okaying a war when she voted to authorize the use of force back in 2002. Or he could kill the clock.
As he consistently does in these settings, he chose the latter.
After a harmless and perfunctory allusion to his differences with Mrs. Clinton over the ’02 vote—“Had my judgment prevailed in 2002, we wouldn’t be in this predicament,” he said softly—Mr. Obama then listed the various reasons he’d like to guarantee a complete withdrawal by 2013 but would nonetheless be unable to make such a pledge.
Then it was Mrs. Clinton’s turn, and—minus the passing reference to the war vote in ‘02—she gave the same basic answer, even noting at the outset her general agreement with Mr. Obama.
As the undisputed front-runner—a recent poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire showed that she now has the support of 43 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in the state—Mrs. Clinton can only benefit from the willingness of her rivals to be as cautious and “presidential” as she is—and as Mr. Obama was last night. The 20 percent who now support him may have found his performance reassuring, but it offered no compelling reason for undecided voters to think that he could win the nomination.
The pattern persisted for most of the night.
Mr. Russert’s second question focused on Israel and Iran, asking whether Israel might be justified in taking military action if it determines that a nuclear-armed Iran represents a direct threat to its national security.
Given the first response, Mrs. Clinton immediately challenged the premise of the question, citing her previously established refusal to address “hypotheticals.” Seemingly prepared for such evasion, Mr. Russert promptly challenged her categorization, noting that Israel seemed to use similar logic to justify a recent military incursion into Syrian airspace. At least it sounded as if this is what Mr. Russert was saying, although it was tough to tell since Mrs. Clinton refused to yield the floor and talked right over him. Finally, after a lengthy filibuster, Mr. Russert succeeded in putting her on the spot, at which point Mrs. Clinton declared that she simply wouldn’t answer the question.
The exchange could have been damaging for Mrs. Clinton—if Mr. Obama, who was given the same question after her, seized the opportunity to say something, anything, definitive. Once again, he took a pass:
“Iran is in a stronger position now than it was before the Iraq war because the Congress authorized the President to go in, and so it indicates the degree to which before we launch attacks or make judgments of this sort that…” And on and on he went with a rambling and utterly soporific dissertation, assuming the bloodless demeanor of the college professor he once was. Only at the very end—after Mr. Russert interrupted him in an effort to pry something specific and intelligible out of him—did Mr. Obama mention that “one of the things that we need to try is to talk directly to Iran.”