When Hillary Clinton was the undisputed Democratic front-runner—a status she enjoyed until about a month ago—a debate like Thursday’s would have done her plenty of good.
It was enough, back in those days, for her to simply give the Democratic masses no compelling reason to vote against her. She was the inevitable candidate, and thus the default choice of most casual primary voters. She only needed to make them shrug and say, “Good enough.” Throughout 2007, she did this splendidly, building and maintaining an overwhelming lead in national polls and in most big primary states—like Texas and Ohio.
But the world has changed, and Barack Obama and his sunny, can-do optimism have supplanted Clinton and her eat-your-peas prescriptions atop the Democratic field. Suddenly he is the man to beat—and “good enough” is not nearly enough for her.
As she always does, Clinton conveyed competence and a command of policy minutia in the first of two pre-March 4 debates, held in Austin by CNN on Thursday night. On international diplomacy, she outlined a detailed set of criteria for engaging in direct diplomacy with the leaders of hostile nations. On health care, she emphasized the universality of her proposal, taking care to draw distinctions with Obama’s plan, which doesn’t include an individual mandate. And on the economy, she effortlessly reeled off a number of policy ideas, like encouraging “green jobs” and investing in the infrastructure.
It was the kind of performance that a voter who was already prepared to vote for Clinton would find reassuring. If she had taken the stage as the front-runner, she would have exited as the front-runner.
But that distinction belongs to Obama now. The more casual Democratic primary voters who instinctively stood with Clinton for a year are leaning his way. Clinton’s challenge, then, is not only to look competent in debates, but to make Obama unacceptable to the masses who like to play follow the leader.
Thursday night demonstrated how difficult that task is for her, mainly because her public demeanor isn’t nearly as warm as Obama’s. That severely complicates her ability to carry off any kind of attack on Obama, who can simply respond by appealing to the audience’s personal affection for him.
This dynamic became clear early on, when Clinton uttered the refrain that has come to serve as her rallying cry as Obama has overtaken her: “Words are important, but actions speak louder than words.” In other words: “You may not like me, but I’m good for you—and you may like him, but he’s not.”
But Obama responded by telling the audience that from a strictly policy standpoint, Clinton isn’t that much different from him –and that what’s really important is the way that each candidate makes people feel. He shifted the nature of the debate to his advantage.
“Senator Clinton and I share a lot of policy positions,” Obama said, “But if we can’t inspire the American people to get involved in their government, and if we can’t inspire them to go beyond the racial divide and the religious divide and the regional divisions that have plagued our politics for so long, then we will continue to see the kind of gridlock and non-performance in Washington that has resulted in families suffering in very real ways.”
In a sense, it was the same tactic that worked brilliantly for George W. Bush in his debates with Al Gore in 2000. Gore, who was every bit the eat-your-peas candidate that Clinton now is, drew numerous and highly specific policy differences with Bush, the more personally likeable candidate, in their encounters.
But instead of quibbling over details, Bush would downplay their differences, charging Gore with using “fuzzy math” and issuing a call for more unifying, less attack-orientated leadership. In effect, Bush’s performance in 2000 and Obama’s on Thursday gave voters who liked them better permission to ignore the boring policy stuff and to vote their feelings. And feelings almost always beat position papers.
This is not to say that Obama is the policy lightweight that Bush was in 2000. Many times during Thursday’s debate, Obama offered weighty and specific evaluations of complex issues. He even one-upped Clinton on the question of meeting with hostile foreign leaders, noting that her belief that meetings with a U.S. President should be a “privilege” enjoyed only by the leaders of countries that comply with specific U.S. demands is one of the reasons the U.S. is now held in such low regard around the world. For those voters who are making up their minds strictly on policy, Obama offered plenty of meat.
But most voters—even in primaries—are not that granular in their decision-making. They tend to favor the candidate who is ahead. And, if the race is close, they will find a way to bend their mind to the will of their heart.
Barack Obama is the national front-runner now and is quickly catching up to Hillary Clinton in Ohio and Texas. His performance tonight did nothing to slow that trend. Neither did hers.