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How Obama Made Clinton

Over the last few days, I've heard more than one person suggest that Hillary Clinton is Barack Obama's perfect foil -- old to his young, establishment to his insurgency, shrill to his smooth, and so on.  In other words, her weaknesses almost perfectly highlighted his strengths.  I think that's all true.

But watching Clinton speak to her supporters just now, it struck me that the opposite holds, as well.  This was the best speech I've seen her give, maybe ever.  It was clever, for sure -- the way she managed to hit "reset" on the entire campaign by declaring she "found her voice" in New Hampshire.  But it also presented her as a clear alternative to Obama -- substance to his style, down-and-dirty work to his lofty inspiration, and so on. 

It also defined her, more clearly, as a populist.  So far, the debate over how to bring about change has been characterized by a weird three-way dynamic -- one, I think, that did not work to Clinton's advantage.  Obama made his plea for unity, Edwards made his plea for confrontation, and Clinton, well, she said she was the most experienced. 

Tonight -- perhaps sensing that Edwards' moment is ending -- Clinton gave an oration that, at least to my ears, sounded a lot like the speeches Edwards has been giving.  It wasn't as belligerent in tone, but it was all about defending the middle class.  My note are sloppy, but there was a terrific passage in Clinton's talk about kids without health insurance, middle class workers without jobs, and so on.  And it was front-and-center, not buried as an afterthought.  I think this all serves as a contrast, at least in emphasis, to the pitch Obama has been making -- which has been all about making history.

To be sure, Clinton still can't compete with Obama for sheer poetry.  His eloquent concession speech was a reminder of that.  And her deficiencies in the style department may be larger -- perhaps a lot larger -- than his deficiencies in the substance department.  As I've written, he doesn't emphasize policy substance in his speeches but he's incredibly bright and has, at his disposal, a very well-developed portfolio of ideas for making America a better place.  The take-away message from an Obama speech is that you're part of a movement.  But the purpose of this movement, even if de-emphasized, is to deliver precisely the sorts of policies that Clinton was talking about tonight.

For those like me, who find both Clinton and Obama appealing, tonight's outcome may be the best of all -- for it may produce a race that strengthens both of their already strong candidacies. 

A contested primary race that stretches at least through February will force Obama to address his weaknesses -- which goes beyond this ever-present danger that inspiration crowds out substance.  As my colleague John Judis noted, Clinton won handily among voters who wanted a candidate "that cares about me" and lower income voters.  After Iowa, we were all ready to bury the infamous beer-track/wine-track construction.  But it may have some relevance, particularly at a time when economic concerns are becoming more prominent.  (I say this with the caveat that conclusions drawn from exit polls, so soon after the polls closed, are prone to a lot of uncertainty -- i.e., I could be way off on this.) 

Similarly, a tight race will force Clinton to fix her flaws -- which includes her inability to win over independents (whom she still lost tonight) and, yes, her lack of inherent likeability. Of course, that process has already started.  It was the defeat in Iowa -- and the near-death experience it produced -- that shook up the Clinton campaign.  And that shake-up produced the Clinton who won tonight, if not always intentionally.  (I'm assuming that moment in the diner, which presumably helped her, was genuinely spontaneous.)

I certainly won't predict how it all ends  Like all those geniuses you hear on the talk shows, I had figured this race was over.  Obviously, it isn't.  And that's ok with me.

--Jonathan Cohn