Barack Obama, the young challenger, looked a little hesitant coming out of his corner for Thursday night's big bout in Austin. He seemed slow and halting in his initial remarks compared to Hillary Clinton, the veteran debater. From the first, she came across as the smooth, powerful professional she is. It took a while to figure out why her usually verbally elegant opponent seemed to be short of charisma this evening. Then it dawned: In a one-on-one debate, Sen. Obama is without the cult following that fills vast auditoriums when he alone occupies the spotlight.
There really wasn't much difference between the two rivals when it came to economic policy. The choice they offered voters was between tax-and-spend and tax-and-spend-more, though it wasn't clear which candidate espoused which position. Each seemed to vie for the title of champion taxer and spender.
Given such a choice, it was easy to see why voters in the last 10 Democratic primaries - a grand total of 11 if you count the primary arranged for Democrats abroad - would choose Barack Obama. If there's not much real difference between these two, why not go with the candidate who makes tax-and-spend sound like a bright, shiny, new idea instead of the same old racket?
Both these senators wound up defending earmarks, which is how members of Congress get appropriations for their pet projects into law without risking an open vote on them. Come fall, one of these candidates will doubtless have to debate John McCain, the great opponent of congressional earmarks and deficit financing in general. Whoever the Democratic nominee turns out to be, he or she will sound equally unconvincing. Pork is pork.
Hillary Clinton's answer to every difficult economic question seems simple enough: Don't answer it. Review it instead.
Here's how she would rev up the economy: Freeze interest rates for five years. Declare a moratorium on housing foreclosures. Call a "time-out" on free trade agreements Smoot-Hawley style.
(Historical footnote: The Smoot-Hawley bill, which dramatically increased tariffs, was the Hoover administration's answer to the Great Depression; naturally it succeeded only in prolonging it because it had the effect of freezing American trade. Just as Miss Hillary's timeout would.)
In general, Hillary Clinton's temporizing would only put off solutions, worsening the problems and delaying the eventual recovery.
To sum up, it's a hard question which of Sen. Clinton's economic panaceas makes the least sense. She's got her practiced sound bites down pat, all right. What she lacks is Economics 101.