Following last week’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas the media buzz was: Hillary Clinton is back. In contrast to the previous debate, Hillary largely avoided sounding evasive and getting tripped up by the attacks of her rivals.
Instead, she seemed to go on the offensive and challenge them. This, and the raucous crowd’s seeming disapproval of any direct attacks on Hillary, kept Barack Obama and John Edwards on their heels most of the night.
But lost in all of this was Hillary’s continuing slippery answers and empty rhetoric. CNN’s bumbling reporters, and the crowd’s reactions, may have blurred her flip-flops and non-answers but they were there.
Take the infamous gender card. When she was asked about her campaign’s accusation that she was being “piled on” and that she was breaking into “the old boys club” she deftly denied that she was playing the gender card but simply wanted to play the winning card. She understood she wasn’t being attacked for her gender but because she was winning. She even managed to compliment the entire field for its diversity.
And that is the irony. Because of course she is playing the gender card. She constantly talks about the feminist nature of her candidacy and brags that people bring their grandchildren to see her from miles around. She called the presidency the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” and her campaign “history-making.”
And there is the additional irony of the first serious female candidate for president running on the nostalgia for her husband’s time in office. As has been frequently noted, without her eight years in the White House as first lady, she would simply be an undistinguished Senator from New York.
When the subject turned to education CNN and her rivals missed an opportunity. When queried on merit pay for teachers all the candidates rejected the idea with rather boilerplate ideas.So did Hillary. But she has a history on this issue. In Arkansas Hillary led a task force on education that recommended merit pay - something the teachers’ unions vehemently opposed. Hillary, never one to compromise, played hard ball and forced the issue through the legislature onto passage on the ballot by painting the unions as opposed to much needed reform.
At the time this was a rare victory for Hillary and part of her husband’s New Democrat image. But of course, on the national stage the education unions are a powerful Democratic interest group that Hillary can’t afford to offend. So education reform becomes a casualty and no one calls her on it.
Trade is yet another issue where Hilary has backtracked and hedged. Her husband has always been staunchly free trade and NAFTA was one his first term’s few successes. And yet when, Hillary was asked if Ross Perot was right in 1992 about NAFTA she made a bizarre joke about only remembering there being a lot of charts.
Forced to give a direct answer she offered this bundle of clarity: “NAFTA was a mistake to the extent that it did not deliver on what we had hoped it would.”
Here is another issue where Hillary is trapped between her desire to please the policy wonks in Washington who hail her as the “serious” candidate yet avoid angering key Democratic constituencies. The unions are vehemently opposed to free trade and are an important force in Iowa. So Hillary backtracks on one of her husband’s signature accomplishments and calls for a trade “timeout” – whatever that means. Never mind that she voted for the most recent trade agreement to come before Congress.
Hillary Clinton may have stopped her political collapse at last night’s debate, but her campaign is still rooted in a fanciful nostalgia for her husband. And as the primary has heated up she continues to be evasive, flip flop and has largely abandoned the very policies that allowed her husband to achieve some measure of success.
Hillary slipped her politician mask back on last night in Las Vegas, but her liberal policies and careful avoidance of honest answers remain at the heart of her campaign.
The question is whether her opponents have the skill to use them against her.