Under Wolf Blitzer's gentle questioning, Hillary was able to avert another debate meltdown in the Nevada Democratic debate held last night, November 15. Asked about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, a compliant, even subservient, Blitzer accepted Hillary's one word answer, “No,” with no follow up. Had a better journalist been asking the questions — like Tim Russert — he would have followed up the bland negation with probing questions about why she is yet again flip flopping on the issue.
The Drudge Report today highlights that a “senior adviser to the Hillary campaign” said, earlier today, that Blitzer “was outstanding, and did not gang up like Russert did in Philadelphia. He avoided personal attacks, remained professional and ran the best debate so far.” And Blitzer checked his journalistic instincts at the door.
The debate also had a pro-Hillary bias in the amount of time allocated to Bill Richardson — who had the third longest face time in the debate. Since Richardson is auditioning for Vice President on Hillary's ticket, using his time to plead for unity among Democrats (i.e. don't bash Hillary), giving him the mike was the same as giving it to Hillary.
The audience booed when candidates knocked Hillary, likely also a part of her defensive debate strategy.
The net result was that CNN saved Hillary from yet another embarrassing debate performance.
Hillary's strategists had prepared the way for Blitzer's cave-in by pre-debate warnings against a repetition of Tim Russert's aggressive — and appropriate — questioning during the Philadelphia debate. Their loud criticisms of the bias of the “all boys club” paved the way for Blitzer's intimidated and pathetic performance during the Nevada debate.
And, of course, the reason Hillary could give a clipped one word answer to the question of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants was that New York's Governor Eliot Spitzer withdrew the proposal the day before the debate. Spitzer, who is not universally known for his weakness or even flexibility, likely pulled back the proposal to spare Hillary the embarrassment of having to defend it in the Nevada debate.
Hillary, for her part, couldn't oppose the license proposal as long as Spitzer was backing it. She could not risk a public split with the Democratic governor of her adopted home state. Spitzer takes no prisoners and would probably make Hillary pay dearly for any public criticism of his initiative. But once he pulled it back, the New York Senator was free to say her “no.”
In the meantime, Hillary used the deba te to spin her platitudes. One of them was a peon against unsafe toys. “We shouldn't permit the import of unsafe toys,” she said in the debate. But her chief strategist, Mark Penn, is the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, the PR company that represents Aquadots, the company that makes the bead toys with an adhesive coating that turns into the date rape drug when children suck on it. Penn is paid by Burson based on a percentage of their profits, and Aquadots is an important contributor to their bottom line. But neither Blitzer nor any of Hillary's Democratic opponents were alert enough to call the conflict into question.
But the underlying inability of the New York Senator to take clear positions on issues has not been assuaged and will increasingly become apparent to the savvy voters of Iowa and New Hampshire. Her slide in Iowa has reached dangerous proportions. She now holds a bare two-point lead over Edwards and a three-point lead over Obama in that pivotal early state.
Despite Blitzer's and CNN's assistance, she might have trouble in Iowa.