Politics & Policy

One-Candidate Debate

A missed opportunity for Hillary Clinton.

Austin, Tex. — Has Hillary caught Obama fever, or is she just throwing in the towel?

Near the end of Democratic debate at the University of Texas Thursday night, Hillary Clinton praised her opponent, Barack Obama, in terms so glowing, she seemed like one of those people who have been fainting in his presence lately.

#ad#“You know, no matter what happens in this contest,” Clinton said, “I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored.” The crowd of 2,000 — a mix of UT students and Texas Democrats — applauded wildly.

Even during the one acrimonious moment in the debate — Hillary’s “change you can Xerox” line, referring to charges of plagiarism that have dogged the Obama campaign — it seemed like Clinton’s heart wasn’t in it. The line drew boos from the crowd and a purse-lipped, stern head-shake of disapproval from Obama. She quickly changed the subject from Obama’s lifted lines to her “very specific goals” for the country.

Obama refrained from attacking Clinton with anything like the ferocity witnessed during a debate in South Carolina last month, when he and Clinton traded accusations over her work for Wal-Mart and his ties to disgraced developer Tony Rezko. He eschewed these kinds of attacks for lengthy discourses on national unity and taking the fight to the “special interests” in Washington. The phrase “running out the clock” came repeatedly to mind.

In the spin room after the debate, Clinton adviser Mark Penn expressed some unhappiness with the rules, which he felt allowed Obama to have too much unrestricted time. “The unlimited time… certainly allowed Senator Obama to get in a lot of his stump speech throughout the course of the debate,” Penn said.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Penn was pushing for Hillary to draw “sharper and deeper contrasts” with Obama, while Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald was arguing for “a less aggressive approach.” Penn used that line — “drawing the contrasts” — to describe Hillary’s performance Thursday night, but Hillary’s less aggressive approach (“I am absolutely honored”) raised questions over whether Penn had lost the intramural argument with Grunwald.

“I never reveal what my views are, and they’re rarely accurate in the papers,” Penn told reporters when asked.

The big contrasts Hillary tried to draw — on health care and on national security — didn’t seem to help her all that much. She and Obama rehashed an argument they’ve had many times before concerning each other’s health-care plans. She claims his won’t be truly “universal“ because it won‘t force every American to buy health insurance. He claims the federal government won’t need to mandate coverage if it uses subsidies and regulations to make health care more affordable.

The problem for Hillary is that there’s nothing new here for voters to evaluate. This is a long-standing disagreement between the two candidates that’s come up at several debates. Hillary’s emphasis on the universality of her plan hasn’t helped her overcome voters’ preference for Obama in the last 11 contests. There’s no reason to think it will start helping now.

On national security, Clinton tried to portray herself as the more experienced candidate — “I am prepared and ready on day one to be commander-in-chief,” she said. But this line merely opened the door for Obama to hammer her again for voting to authorize the invasion of Iraq. I’m not sure that’s the “contrast” Penn had in mind.

The Clinton campaign has to consider Thursday night’s debate a missed opportunity. She still hasn’t solved the problem of competing against a candidate whose personal appeal makes him difficult to attack. And on Thursday night, it looked like she wasn’t even trying. She has one more chance — a debate next Tuesday in Ohio — to figure it out.

— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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