Clinton's Game of Dodgeball
HANOVER, N.H. -- On the flight from Washington to New Hampshire to cover Wednesday night's Democratic presidential debate, I was joined by a Hillary Clinton staffer who was headed to Hanover to prep her for the encounter with her seven rivals. "I expect fireworks," he said, anticipating that the challengers would try to shake up the race at one of the last confrontations before the January voting.
It didn't happen. There were several jabs -- from Joe Biden, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Mike Gravel-- but Barack Obama, who is her closest pursuer in the polls, had lost his voice to a bad cold and mostly stood mute. And Clinton smothered every question with a blanket of conditional responses, so reluctant to take a clear stand that she frustrated NBC's Tim Russert, the designated questioner at the two-hour MSNBC talkathon.
Her posture during the debate was the classic front-runner pose: Don't make waves. The question is whether she can go through the next three months saying little or nothing without jeopardizing her lead in the contest.
The highly regarded Granite State Poll released just before the debate showed Clinton had expanded that advantage, drawing 43 percent of the support, compared to 20 percent for Obama, 12 percent for Edwards and 6 percent for Richardson.
During the debate, she rarely came out of a defensive crouch, as if determined to protect her favored position. Answering the first question, she said her goal would be to withdraw all American troops from Iraq by 2013, but "it is very difficult to know what we are going to be inheriting" from the Bush administration, so she cannot make any pledge -- as Richardson and others feel free to do. Troops might be needed for counterterrorism work for many years.
Angering utter long-shot Gravel and disagreeing with Biden and Chris Dodd, she voted earlier on Wednesday for Sen. Joe Lieberman's resolution designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Edwards claimed that President Bush could use that as a pretext for war and said that it showed Clinton had not learned the lesson of her "mistake" in authorizing the use of force in Iraq. But she calmly replied that the Revolutionary Guards had provided weapons to kill Americans in Iraq and promoted terrorism -- so the designation was justified.
When Russert asked what her attitude would be toward an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, she refused to answer such a "hypothetical." He insisted it was a real possibility, but she would not play. Instead, she endorsed the recent Israeli attack on Syria -- a safe stand.
Clinton joined the others in endorsing "sanctuary cities" for illegal immigrants but couched it as a step toward law enforcement rather than protection for people here illegally. And when challenged on the failure of her 1993-94 health-care initiative, she said she was "proud" to have waged that "lonely" fight and rejected Russert's claim that her stubbornness had blocked a bipartisan agreement back then.
Her greatest evasiveness occurred on the volatile issue of Social Security. Biden, the first to answer Russert's question about steps to save the system from bankruptcy, said he would lift the cap on payroll taxes and raise additional millions from people making more than $97,000 a year.
But when it was Clinton's turn, she argued that sound fiscal policies and economic growth could eliminate the problem -- claiming that her husband's experience proved that point. Russert knew better and corrected her math, but she was adamant: "I'm not putting anything on the proverbial table" -- meaning no painful tax increases or benefit cuts -- until the budgetary and overall economic fixes are attempted. That is a position that would be hard to maintain in office, but it offers maximum protection for the campaign.
It went on like that through several more topics, until a final question about baseball fandom. Clinton identified herself as a Yankees fan, saying she knew it would not help her with the Red Sox Nation supporters in New Hampshire. But what if it is the Cubs vs. the Yankees, Russert asked. "I guess I would have to alternate," she said, triangulating once again.
This dodginess got her through the two hours. Whether it can get her through the next three months is a different question. The same poll that gave her a 2 to 1 lead over Obama and an almost 4 to 1 lead over Edwards found that only 17 percent of New Hampshire voters have a firm choice of a candidate. Fifty-five percent said they are still deciding. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.