For 15 minutes at the very top of their final pre-March 4 Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traded mind-numbingly wonkish soliloquies about the details of their health care plans. To any candidates for master’s degrees in Heath Care Policy who might have been watching, the dialogue was possibly beneficial.
To the remaining 99.9 percent of the viewing audience, it was an incoherent exchange in which both candidates seemed to be reaching into the minutiae of their opponent’s plan in an effort to play a particularly demagogic brand of gotcha.
For these viewers, there was no clear winner or loser during the health care portion of the debate. But then the topic changed and Clinton decided, out of a frustration that has been mounting for months it seemed, to vent some of her displeasure with the media.
Instead of diving straight into a reply to a question from Tim Russert about NAFTA, Clinton said: “Can I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time. And I don’t mind. I’ll be happy to field them.”
Then, again instead of delving into the NAFTA question, she took it a step further: “But I do find it curious. If anybody saw Saturday Night Live, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and if he needs another pillow.”
Thud. In about 10 seconds’ time, Clinton managed to communicate self-pity, bitterness, pettiness, paranoia and mean-spirited sarcasm. And she handed the press a sound bite that will undoubtedly be played over and over, on television, radio and the Internet, thereby completely drowning out the substantive messages she tried to communicate at other times during the debate.
She may have a point about often receiving the first question in debates. (Underlying argument: Obama would never be able to think on his feet as quickly as she can.) And her staff and her most fervent supporters have certainly taken note of this, just as they have cataloged every other real and imagined slight from the press during this entire campaign.
But they are the only ones who have noticed it, and they are the only ones who will ever care much about it. To the casual viewer and voter, it simply sounds like whining—like a basketball coach who can’t stop pointing out that the refs whistled his team for four more fouls than the opposition. The coach (and his team’s fans) see a conspiracy. The average fan hears a whining coach. Even if Hillary is right and she has actually stumbled across some malicious pattern in the order of questioning—and it’s not clear that she has—she only does damage to herself by bringing it up.
Bringing up SNL and taking a shot at Obama only worsened the damage. Since its airing three nights ago, the Clinton campaign has treated the SNL sketch in question like some kind of revelation from above. For those who missed it and will never see it—and that includes the overwhelming majority of voters in Ohio and Texas—the sketch portrayed the moderators of a debate professing their undying love for Obama and scorning Clinton like an unwanted stepchild.
Perhaps Clinton intended for this shot to come across more like good-natured ribbing. But it didn’t sound that way at all. What it did do was call to mind her crack during last week’s debate that Obama represents “change you can Xerox.” So did the silence that greeted her line.
In fact, Clinton may have given media members the three examples they seem to require to declare a trend: Perhaps soon we’ll see the “pillow” and “Xerox” potshots coupled together with her effort to link Obama to a slumlord at a debate last month in television packages about “When Clinton attacks.”
Compared to the health care discussion or any of the other weighty topics discussed on Tuesday night, Clinton’s brief gripe about the media seems trivial. But it is human moments that most people talk about and remember. Clinton made her contribution to the genre on Tuesday, and she may pay a dear price for it.