Tuesday night may have been the last time Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would face off in a debate this primary season. Not only because Hillary’s candidacy is hanging by the fraying thread in Ohio and Texas, but remarkably because she can no longer be confident of winning these contests.
It used to be a given that Hillary, policy wonk and master of detail, would outshine Obama, master of the set speech and crowd pleasing rallies. But in the same way he beat her in fundraising and organization, he eventually proved to be her equal around the debate table. At every turn she sought to expose his weakness, only to have the effort backfire.
At the root of this problem is Hillary’s need for an opponent to demonize in order to define herself. In Arkansas it was teachers’ unions who opposed merit pay and other education reforms. In the White House it was the insurance industry who opposed her efforts to reform health care. She succeeded in getting legislation passed in Arkansas while failing miserably at health care reform, but the pattern can be seen throughout her career. Pick an enemy and attack.
Hillary was always most comfortable battling the infamous Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. When she was fighting Republicans and defending her husband she had the natural support of her party; and many in the country who thought the GOP was over-reaching. She even managed to leverage this into a Senate seat.
In her presidential campaign, this ability to survive was to be her trump card. She proclaimed herself the only one tough enough to win in November. There was only one small problem: she had to win the primary first.
In this scenario who was to play the foil for her attack politics? At first it was George W. Bush. But this only goes so far as she wasn’t running against Bush and he wouldn’t be on the ballot.
At some point she was going to have to articulate a vision of the future. But her entire rationale for running was tied to the past; her money, her name recognition, her popularity were all tied to nostalgia for the economic good times of her husband’s administration. How could she run on “change” when she was the epitome of an establishment candidate?
When push came to shove Hillary’s instincts kicked in and she sought to run against someone rather than on where she would take the country. Her constant touting of her “experience” was in clear contrast to Obama’s inexperience. Her solutions were in contrast to his mere rhetoric.