For all Barack Obama’s aggressive talk about how he was finally going to force Hillary Clinton to answer for taking seemingly inconsistent positions, it was the New York senator herself who ultimately raised the issue.
After evading pointed attacks from Obama and John Edwards over Iran, Iraq, social security and taxes for much of Tuesday night’s debate at Drexel University here in Philadelphia, it was a question about, of all things, Eliot Spitzer’s failed proposal to provide illegal immigrants with ordinary, valid driver’s licenses. At first she said the proposal would fill a “vacuum” created by the lack of a national immigration plan, but when Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut called it “troublesome,” she hedged.
“I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it,” she said.
Pressed by moderator Tim Russert, Clinton bristled.
“This is where everybody plays gotcha,” she said.
"Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No,” said Clinton, adding of Spitzer, “He’s making an honest effort to do it."
Edwards and Obama, standing to her left and right respectively, leapt at the chance to take Clinton to task for what they said was a wending answer indicative of her inability to talk straight with the American people.
"If I didn’t miss this, Senator Clinton said about two different things in two minutes," said Edwards. "Americans need a president who will be straight with them."
Obama, nodding, added that he couldn’t tell if she is "for it or against it."
Before the debate even began, it was clear that a fight was in the air.
Across the street from Drexel University’s main building, which was bathed in red, white and blue floodlights, volunteers supporting Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Obama, Edwards and Clinton all crammed next to one another screaming their heads off. In front of the dozens of Hillary volunteers, Wesley Clark stood on top of a short white stepstool in a dark suit yelling into a bullhorn.
“And she’s got a secret weapon,” said the retired general and Clinton supporter. “Hillary is a great person. She’s warm. I like her. Don’t you like her?”
“Yeah,” screamed the ranks of volunteers, cheering ecstatically behind the iron rails.
“We like Hillary,” chanted Clark. “We like Hillary. We like Hillary.”
A tall, muscular and throaty Obama volunteer named Danielle Clarke, upset about “illegal bullhorns” walked over, and repeatedly screamed “Go to hell Hillary” in time with the retired general’s chant. The volunteer got so close to him that aides had to intervene.
“She’s a nasty bitch,” Clarke said on the way back to the Obama section.
The general continued, unfazed, now leading the crowd in a chant of “Our next President.”
It was that kind of a night, with an abundance of pugilistic metaphors used by the candidates and their advisors.
On the first question of the debate, in which Obama was asked to articulate his differences with Clinton, the Illinois senator said the evening’s debate in Philadelphia was the most over-hyped bout since Rocky Balboa took on Apollo Creed.
“The amazing thing is that I am Rocky in this situation,” said Obama.
In a somewhat tentative tone, Obama pointed out how Clinton had first supported NAFTA and then opposed it. He said she first tolerated torture and now opposed it. He said she authorized the vote to pave the way to war with Iraq, and now opposed the war.
“Now, that may be politically savvy,” said Obama, “but I don’t think that it offers the clear contrast that we need. I think what we need right now is honesty with the American people about where we would take the country.
He added that leadership does not mean "changing positions whenever it’s politically convenient."
When asked to respond and to address the accusation of some of her opponents that her policies are not far from those of the Bush administration, Clinton refused to take the bait and again sought to cast herself in opposition to the Bush administration more than to Obama or any of the other Democrats on the stage.
‘I don’t think the Republicans got the message that I am like them,” she said, referencing the frequency with which her name was uttered in Republican debates. “I have been standing against the Republicans, George Bush and Dick Cheney," she said, "and I will continue to do so, and I think Democrats know that."
Edwards had no intention of letting her off the hook.
“Senator Clinton says that she can be the candidate for change but she defends a broken system that is corrupt in Washington DC,” he said. He also criticized her position of keeping a certain amount of combat troops in Iraq by saying, “To me that’s not ending the war that is a continuation of the war.”
Then, alluding to Clinton’s vote to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, he said, “She voted to give George Bush the first step to moving militarily against Iran. And they have taken it.”
Both Edwards and, to a lesser extent, Obama constantly supplied withering attacks against Clinton’s evasiveness and even electability, for much of the night.
But the issue they seemed most interested in exploiting was her vote on Iran.
Clinton did her best to respond early.
“In my view, rushing to war—we should not be doing that—but we shouldn’t be doing nothing," said Clinton. "And that means we should not let them acquire nuclear weapons and the best way to prevent that is a full court press on the diplomatic front." She said her vote was meant to apply economic sanctions on Iran as part of a vigorous diplomacy.
Later in the debate, Obama returned to Clinton’s vote, calling it “yet another rationale for what we are doing in Iraq. And I think that it is a mistake.” He said he was alone amongst the senators on the platform in having the “credibility of not having been one of the co-authors of this engagement in Iraq.”
Edwards put it more pointedly.
"What I worry about is, if Bush invades Iran six months from now, I mean, are we going to hear: ‘If only I had known then what I know now?’" which is similar to what Clinton says about her 2002 authorization vote. He asked questioned if Clinton had different messages for different audiences, a “primary mode” and “general election mode.”
Edwards then suggested she was trying to obfuscate on her position in Iraq.
“I need to rebut that,” said Clinton. "I stand for ending the war in Iraq, bringing our troops home." She then detailed her position on Iraq, which she suggested was very similar to that of Edwards. “I think we are having a semantic difference here,” she said. At another point in the debate, Hillary also responded to an attack by Rudy Giuliani, who has said she lacks any relevant experience for the job as president. She talked about the “Republicans and their constant obsession with me.”
(The most memorable reaction to the Republican criticism came from Biden, on the subject of Giuliani’s experience. “The irony is,” said Biden, “Rudy Giuliani, probably the most underqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency, is here talking about any of the people here. Rudy Giuliani… I mean, think about it! Rudy Giuliani. There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence —a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There’s nothing else!")
Obama later suggested that the Republicans wanted to run against Clinton because they were comfortable rehashing the old fights and didn’t want to move the country forward. Edwards suggested that they wanted her to run because they thought they could beat her.
The debate went on, mostly uneventfully, for nearly an hour before the Spitzer question came up, and in the media filing room, backs suddenly straightened and fingertips clicked feverishly at keyboards as Clinton stumbled.
Afterwards, in the lobby, top campaign officials came out to spin reporters.
On the question of licenses for illegal immigrants, Mark Penn, Clinton’s senior strategist and pollster sounded not unlike his candidate.
When asked why the people on stage were confused by her answer on drivers licenses, Penn told the Observer, “Look, I think it is a complex issue. And I think that the issue that she raised about the drivers licenses was, look, she supports the governor of New York in what he’s got to do, but thinks we’ve got to have comprehensive immigration reform. At the end of the day most of the other candidates were not asked to answer the question. Only Senator Obama was asked to answer the question. And he gave almost the same answer word for word.”
But did she support Spitzer’s proposal in New York?
“She thinks he has a good idea. She thinks it’s a good idea have the different kinds of licenses to clear up the problem. She thinks it’s unfortunate he’s got to move to something like this because it is a result of the failure of immigration reform. And that only comprehensive immigration reform is the real answer.”
When pressed if a good idea was necessarily an endorsement, Penn said, “A good idea is what it is. It’s a good idea. Let’s see where that idea goes. I think she said it is a good idea given what the governor’s been handed.”
Across the room, David Axelrod, Obama’s chief consultant stood in a much smaller scrum and succinctly made the argument that many frustrated Obama supporters and donors were hoping the candidate would make on his own. “I think she showed she had a problem with being straight with the American people,” Axelrod told the Observer. “It’s a strategy and I understand the strategy. It is to be as evasive as possible and not get yourself into any potentially political positions. But ultimately that’s a problem.
“I think she created a problem for herself.”