Last night, the Clintons watched the GOP debate. For reasons that remain unclear, a tape recorder captured their comments during the program, and an anonymous source supplied a transcript. Here are some highlights.
The first reaction came when Rudy Giuliani proclaimed: “I drove pornography out of Times Square.” Bill Clinton murmured assent and said: “Well, Hillary, you’ve got to give the man some credit on that point. Right after I opened my office in New York, I looked all over Times Square for porn. Couldn’t find one bit of it.”
Senator Clinton did not respond.
She seemed to perk up when she heard her own name. Mitt Romney said that Massachusetts did not address health care “by having government take it over, the way Hillary Clinton would.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “My plan is based on the private sector and would provide greater choice to better health care for more people at lower cost!” At this point, the transcript records an indistinguishable sound. Then she cut off the sound by saying, “Stop laughing, Bill!”
Romney also caught her attention when he defended President Bush: “Hillary Clinton is trying to rewrite history, that somehow he did this all by himself, going to Iraq. He went to Congress and got their support.”
“That’s not fair,” she said. “The president misled us. Why I remember when we launched military strikes against the so-called WMDs. The president said oh-so- confidently: `I have no doubt today, that left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again.”
“Uh, you know, Hillary,” interjected the former president, “The guy who said that was kind of … me.”
She paused, then said: “You and I have a number of things that we’ve agreed not to discuss. Let us add that item to the list.”
Just before a commercial break, Brit Hume said that he would next ask: “how will these candidates run against the Democrats’ front-running Senator Hillary Clinton?”
“Okay, Hillary,” said the former president, “they’re going to come after you from now until the general election. Here’s what we do: Every time they fault you for anything at all, we call it ‘the politics of personal destruction.’ It worked beautifully for me. Just kept repeating it and repeating it while we were out there destroying Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey and Monica…”
“Bill,” she interjected icily, “remember the list of things we don’t discuss.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said. And all was silent in the Chappaqua for the rest of the break.
Mitt Romney was the first to handle Hume’s question about Hillary, and he suggested that she “never worked in the private sector.”
“Never worked in the private sector?” she said incredulously. “What on earth does he think I did at the Rose Law Firm? How about my seat on the Wal-Mart board? How about all that money I made in cattle futures?”
“Hillary,” the former president said, “It might be a good idea if we added those things to the list, too.”
The debate then turned to the issue of entitlements. Hume asked Fred Thompson about his proposal to curb the growth of Social Security benefits.
“Yessss!!!” she said with obvious enthusiasm. “I love it when my opponents talk about doing something with Social Security. Even Obama has said that nothing should be off the table. Yeah, right, I’ll slam their heads on the table. When I’m done with these guys, everybody will think that they want to hire old people out as speed bumps. No tax increases, no benefit cuts — that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
“Darn right,” said the former president, “who the heck cares about arithmetic?”
Thompson then said his plan is “based on the notion that there’s no reason to run for the presidency of the United States if you can’t tell the truth.”
At that point, the Clintons had nothing to say.
— John J. Pitney, Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.