Politics & Policy

Last Night

Did we just see Hillary Clinton's final presidential-primary debate?

Al Felzenberg

It is hard to understand why Hillary Clinton pressed so hard for an additional debate with Barack Obama. It is impossible for her to increase her 100-percent name recognition. The policy differences between the two Democratic candidates, by their own admission, are infinitesimally small. And, as she — like Richard Nixon, who also claimed to be running against a lightweight — made “perfectly clear,” she had to contend not only with an opponent she considers a lightweight, but also with a hostile media. The Ohio debate once again proved the wisdom of the old saw about being careful what you wish for. She got her debate. He won it.

He did so not by making superior arguments or offering a better or even different vision for the country. All he had to do was show up. The real change he offered was himself. With the candidates in fundamental agreement on almost everything (at least when their left-leaning liberal base is watching), Democratic primary voters are ready to change the channel on the Clintons.

Having been advised by her crackerjack team that the only way to take out the nice, pleasant, new kid on the block was to throw the kitchen sink at him, Clinton walked in over-prepared. When Russert tried to pin Obama to the ropes about the Farrakhan endorsement, Hillary injected a convoluted story about how she lost support when she broke ranks with a minor party in New York that espoused anti-Semitism. This proved but a segue for her to lecture her opponent on the difference between denouncing and rejecting an endorsement from extremists. After watching her work so hard to make her point, Obama coolly conceded it. His retort made her look small. And so it went.

Will this be the last time viewers see Hillary in a presidential debate though? Not necessarily. There is always 2012.

Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of the forthcoming The Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.

John Hood

I don’t know if Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in Ohio is going to be the last such game that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will play, but I do think I know what she was trying to do with the early statements that so many pundits didn’t like: She was making a flat-out appeal to female voters as a victim of powerful and manipulative males.

She was on the stage with three men. Two were asking tough questions – and I think a fair-minded person would observe that Russert and Williams were rougher on her than on Obama – while the third, her opponent, seemed slippery and hard to pin down. Clinton’s target audience may find these images familiar and disturbing.

At this point, whether one likes it or not, the Democratic primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont are not going to be settled on the finer points of health-care policy or the future contours of Kosovar-Serbian relations. A few percentage points of undecided or weakly inclined voters are all that matters. If Clinton wins the big contests, even narrowly, she’s still in the hunt. These Democratic swing voters are disproportionately female. Most are not close followers of national politics and policy details. To the extent that they get anything from the Ohio debate in the next 24 hours, it will be snippets on television in which Clinton says she’s been picked on, surrounded by three men.

Perhaps it was a desperate gambit, but now is the time for them. Playing the victim of a powerful and manipulative male has worked wonders for Clinton’s public image in the past. Stick with what you know.

– John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation.

Kathryn Jean Lopez

This has not been pretty. Hillary Clinton could have proven herself a leader and dropped out the morning after that last debate. She gave a gracious closing statement and set herself up as a party and national leader who could return to the Senate with dignity, as someone who wants to serve and knows how best she can. Instead, she melted down over the weekend, lashed out, and insulted those she has to woo away from Obama if she’s going to turn this around. She’s not going to turn this around. No one wants to be lectured at for the next four and a half years.

Thank heavens she’s not going to pull this out, because what we’ve seen in the last few days is no leader. No steady hand. No big picture.

Yes, this is her last presidential debate. She’ll have to work to take a deep breath and recover her political dignity after the last few days, after the anger and outrage and desperation. Given what we have seen, I wont be devastated if she doesnt. We dont need her philosophy. We dont need her bad attitude.

And, needless to say, we didnt need her husband back in the White House. The decline of the house of Clinton isnt the worst thing to happen to America. All things considered, this couples likely exit from the presidential stage next week is a win for America.

– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of National Review Online.

John J. Pitney Jr.

Last night failed to change the campaign. That outcome is no surprise. By now, Clinton and Obama resemble a couple in a dysfunctional marriage. Sometimes they can paste on their plastic smiles, declaring affection for each other. Sometimes they talk about serious things. But then the sniping starts. In Cleveland, as elsewhere, they disagreed very little on the issues. Instead, they bickered about who said what and when. Just picture an angry wife and husband: “You always say that I said that! I never said that!” When Obama finally “rejected” Farrakhan, you could picture the thought bubble: “There, I said what you wanted me to say! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?”

Such dialogue might be entertaining at first. But after numerous repetitions, viewers think to themselves, “Oh Lord, they’re at it again.”

As before the debate, Obama has a good chance of winning either Texas or Ohio. If he does so, more uncommitted super-delegates will endorse him. Some of Clinton’s super-delegates will switch sides. (Yes, such a betrayal would be dishonorable, but honor has never been part of the Clinton equation.) Her money will dry up, and the pressure to withdraw will grow. And there will be no more Clinton-Obama debates.

John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

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