As the two advisors see it, there are major differences between the two plans.
They differ, famously, on their health care plans, where Mrs. Clinton mandates universal insurance coverage and Mr. Obama does not.
Mr. Goolsbee characterized the Obama tax plan as emphasizing simplicity, offering up to $1,000 tax rebates and using a default enrollment to get working people to use savings plans. He said Mr. Obama’s stimulus plan was superior to Mrs. Clinton’s because it quickly put money into the hands of consumers through unemployment insurance, checks to Social Security recipients, mortgage relief and tax rebates. (Critics such as Paul Krugman of The New York Times have said that the Obama plan is not a true stimulus plan because it only moves up the tax cuts Mr. Obama had already called for, but offered no significant new relief.)
Mr. Sperling described Mrs. Clinton’s tax plan as more progressive, because it offered similar tax rebates, but also a 100 percent match on workers’ savings. As for Mr. Goolsbee’s criticisms of Mrs. Clinton’s stimulus plan as too onerous and slow to be effective, Mr. Sperling said the targeted programs Mrs. Clinton called for—to help struggling Americans pay their heating bills and weatherize their houses—would be quickly enforced because many of the programs already exist and because governors would be eager to get billions in federal funding around the country.
And he argued that her mortgage relief plan, to freeze foreclosures for 90 days and freeze housing rates for five years—was the boldest way to stabilize an economy that Mrs. Clinton said on Tuesday morning was at risk of falling into “a deep and long recession.”
Those policy differences have been echoed by Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton throughout the campaign, but during Monday night’s debate the candidates expressed those differences in a heated manner usually reserved for surrogates.
“It is absolutely critical right now to give a stimulus to the economy,” Mr. Obama said at one point. “And Senator Clinton mentioned tax rebates. That wasn’t the original focus of her plan. I think recently she has caught up with what I had originally said, which is we’ve got to get taxes into the—tax cuts into the pockets of hard-working Americans right away.”
Mrs. Clinton later sought to clarify the point, arguing tha
t her original plan was “$70 billion in spending with a $40 billion contingency that was part of the original plan, in order to have that money available for tax rebates” and accused Mr. Obama of not paying for his proposals.
“What she said wasn’t true,” said Mr. Obama. We account for every single dollar that we propose.”
It was that exchange that led to all the night’s negative nastiness—and the next day’s.
In a speech the morning after, Mr. Obama said, “She thought it could wait until things got worse. Five days later, the economy didn’t really change, but the politics apparently did, because she changed her plan to look just like mine.”
And so on.
This level of scrutiny and instant-comparison has become the norm, beginning, really, with the release of the Democratic candidates’ health care plans late last yearCK. Paul Krugman of The New York Times—who now blogs—and an army of Internet-based commentators combed through them and were declaring their judgments within a mini-news-cycle.
“Part of that is making sure that we have reached out to bloggers or groups of bloggers when you unveil a plan,” said Mr. Sperling, who said that in the case of the health care plan one had to go not only to the traditional top reporters and columnists but also the top bloggers, so even if they were putting something out in two hours, they had been given time and help to better understand it.
In the “spin room” after the debate in Myrtle Beach, top advisers to both campaigns acknowledged the primacy of pocketbook issues—and began reciting from their meticulous, carefully devised economic talking points.
“I think economic issues are paramount,” said Mark Penn, Mrs. Clinton’s chief pollster. “She’s got a full plan, in terms of stimulus, that involves not just stimulus and rebates but also dealing with the mortgage crisis, foreclose freeze, and interest rate freeze, and also has a long-term job creation [plan] that could start right away in terms of green jobs.”
Moments later, just a few yards away, Mr. Axelrod said, “There were some distinctions on how we approach some long-term economic challenges. She says she is going to be the steady, experienced hand at the tiller, but you know, as he said tonight, it’s not enough to be ready on day one—you also have to be right on day one.”