At last night’s Democratic debate Hillary Clinton’s electoral steamroller finally hit a speed bump. With a growing lead in most polls, a powerful fundraising operation, and a developing air of inevitability her opponents were forced to go on the offensive.
And, aided by moderators Brian Williams and Tim Russert, they did just that, criticizing her on everything from Iran to social security and even a plan to give illegal immigrants driver’s licenses. As a result Hillary was on the defensive the whole night and sounded scornful and even angry at times.
But what stood out, was Hillary’s inability to give a straight answer. Her habit of seeking to have it both ways came to the fore and just may have given her opponents the opening they have been seeking in this campaign. If Hillary begins to stumble we may look back on this debate as a turning point.
Hillary had already developed a reputation as a cagey politician who often refused to commit to policy specifics. And she has faced criticism about many of these issues in previous debates. But in the past she was able to deflect these attacks with stronger answers and a sense of humor.
Last night, however, she could not assume that laid back persona. It appeared that the criticism was getting to her. From the start her voice seemed to rise up a notch and take on a harder edge.
As the debate played out a pattern developed. Hillary would be challenged on an issue and she would seek to defuse those criticisms often by ratcheting up her attacks on President Bush and Republicans. Obama and Edwards, however, frequently pointed out that Hillary was trying to have it both ways and that it was time to have a President who was honest with the American people. On a number of issues Hillary refused to be pinned down or give a straight answer.
On Social Security she continued to cling to her mantra of “fiscal responsibility.” She seemed testy and uncomfortable when questioned about why she had refused to put any reform options on the table yet seemed to consider raising the payroll tax in conversation with an Iowa voter.
Instead of taking a stand, she claimed that the whole issue was a “Republican trap.” But Tim Russert noted that her husband had spoken of a “looming fiscal crisis” in social security in 1998. Obama jumped in to assert that the issue was demographics not fiscal responsibility and that everyone on stage was opposed to privatization. Fixing problems required honesty not a fear of GOP talking points.