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The Dems' Debate In Philadelphia

The big question heading into tonight’s debate was how aggressively would Barack Obama and John Edwards hammer Hillary Clinton’s character, which recent internal-polling suggests is her greatest vulnerability. The answer was: very aggressively. Obama and Edwards spent much of the evening firing away at Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness. And, yet, in a way, the debate seemed less about Obama and Edwards versus Clinton than Obama versus Edwards, with Clinton as a bystander.

That’s not to say all the incoming fire had no effect on Clinton. There was a moment early on, after Edwards ridiculed her recent Iran vote, when Clinton looked as annoyed as I’ve seen her in a debate.  “[M]any of us who voted for that resolution said that this is not anything other than an expression of support for using economic sanctions,” she said through nearly-clenched teeth. “You know, several people who were adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq, like Senator Durbin, voted the same way I did.” Late in the debate, after Clinton appeared to waver on whether to grant driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, Edwards and Obama both pounced (“Senator Clinton said two different things in course of about two minutes,” Edwards protested), at which point Clinton’s legendary poise briefly deserted her.

But, for the most part, Clinton parried effectively--pointing out that, however you might feel about her, there are still enormous differences between her and the GOP. “Well, I don't think the Republicans got the message that I'm voting and sounding like them,” she said. “On every issue from health care for children to an energy policy that puts us on the right track … I have been standing against the Republicans, George Bush and Dick Cheney.” Hillary, like Rudy Giuliani, has so far been able to win over skeptical members of her party by invoking their common enemies. There's no reason to think that stopped working tonight.

The real development was the contrast between Obama and Edwards, both of whom were auditioning for the role of Clinton alternative, and who sounded at times like two homicide detectives working over a murder suspect.

Edwards struck me as more compelling, for two reasons. First, his delivery was far more confident and focused. Obama backed into his attack almost apologetically—“some of this [expected confrontation] gets overhyped,” he said at the outset, sounding a little jittery. “In fact, I think this has been the most hyped fight since Rocky Balboa fought Apollo Creed.” He looked relieved after his opening salvo and conspicuously didn’t invoke Clinton’s name during his next few responses. It was as though, having finally proved he could challenge Clinton to her face, he was eager to resume his usual posture.

By contrast, Edwards cut immediately to the issue of Clinton’s honesty and kept pounding her over and over again. “Well, I just listened to what Senator Clinton said and she said she wanted to maximize pressure on the Bush administration,” he harrumphed after Clinton explained her Iran position.  “So the way to do that is to vote yes on a resolution that looks like it was written, literally, by the neo-cons?” The very next time Edwards had the floor, he landed a lacerating combination, first questioning Hillary’s judgment, then her arrogance. “[W]hat I worry about is, if Bush invades Iran six months from now, I mean, are we going to hear:  ‘If only I had known then what I know now?’” And then: “I saw an explanation of … her vote which basically said she was moving from primary mode to general election mode. I think that our responsibility as presidential candidates is to be in ‘tell the truth’ mode all the time.” 

Edwards’s second advantage was the way he framed his case against Hillary. Both he and Obama were essentially questioning Clinton’s integrity. But Obama chose to do so by portraying Hillary as a flip-flopper: “Senator Clinton, in her campaign, I think has been for NAFTA previously. Now she's against it. She has taken one position on torture several months ago, and then most recently has taken a different position.” Problem is, thanks to the 2004 campaign, the flip-flopper charge mostly connotes weakness and irresolution. That’s  the opposite of people’s intuitions about Clinton--and the opposite of the way she came off tonight. What was intended as an attack on Clinton’s integrity ended up as a bit of a muddle.

Edwards’s approach was different: Rather than accuse Clinton of flip-flopping--which is to say, saying one thing, then saying another--he accused of Clinton saying one thing and then doing another. Which is to say, he accused Clinton of lying, something that goes to the heart of people’s concerns about her. When, for example, Edwards complained that, “[s]he says she'll stand up to George Bush on Iran. … [a]nd, in fact, she voted to give George Bush the first step in moving militarily on Iran,” there was no ambiguity about which character flaw he was highlighting.

In fairness, Obama had his moments tonight. For the most part, they just didn’t have anything to do with Clinton. I thought his best response came after a question about how his Muslim-sounding name would play among voters. “I have confidence in the American people,” Obama said. “There is no doubt that my background is not typical of a presidential candidate. I think everybody understands that. But that's part of what is so powerful about America, is that it gives all of us the opportunity--a woman, a Latino, myself--the opportunity to run.” This is vintage Obama uplift, and it struck the perfect note.

Obama also shined when criticizing the GOP’s policy priorities. “There's a building in the Cayman Islands that supposedly houses 12,000 U.S. corporations, which means it is either the largest building in the world or the biggest tax ripoff in the world,” he said. “So there has to be a restoration of balance in our tax code …  [C]losing loopholes and rolling back the Bush tax cuts to the top 1 percent, simply restores some fairness and a sense that we're all in this together, as opposed to each of us being in it on our own.” I consider Obama the most compelling defender of liberal values I’ve ever seen on the campaign trail, and that continued to be the case tonight.

At times I get the sense Obama is caught in a dilemma of his own making. His whole “changing politics” motif is really an implicit argument about why he and not Hillary Clinton should be the nominee: It implicitly rebuts the argument that he lacks experience (Washington experience is bad if the established way of doing things has failed), and it implicitly raises doubts about Hillary’s strengths (she’s tainted for having been in Washington so long). But the problem with an implicit argument is that, in order for voters to get the message, you’ve got to make it explicit at some point, which Obama clearly isn’t comfortable doing. So we’ve seen him inch reluctantly in a direction which the logic of his own campaign dictates, and it’s maddening to watch.

I can’t help feeling Obama could have avoided this whole mess had he been less preoccupied with Clinton from the get-go and more concerned with making the best case for himself. He has real assets in that regard, as we saw tonight. It’s a shame we don’t see more of them.

--Noam Scheiber