Political Capital with John Harwood

Clinton/Obama At Dems Debate: Missed Opportunities


The single signature moment of last night's debate was what first appeared to be Hillary Clinton's declaration of independence from her ex-president husband. "He's not the one standing here"--her line after Tim Russert pressed on differences between her position and Bill Clinton's on torture--was a dramatic and effective moment of self-assertion.

But more significant was what DIDN'T happen. Her top rival, Barack Obama, checked his swing on the fastball that Russert grooved over the center of the plate on voter fatigue with polarization and scandals. Asked directly whether he was referring to both the Bush and Clinton eras in his calls to "turn the page", Obama declined to say yes. In fact he IS referring to both, but is reluctant to say so for fear of muddying his strategy of rising above bickering.

That might be a fine strategy, yet it's at odds with his commitment to tell voters bluntly what he thinks. And polls nationally, and here in New Hampshire, indicate that's he's heading in the wrong direction in his attempt to catch her.

Yet Clinton missed big opportunities as well. On Social Security, she refused to say whether she'd raise taxes--or do anything in particular--to shore up the system. I don't know anyone in either party who doubts she'd do exactly that, which means her answer underscored her vulnerability on questions of candor and straightforwardness.

And Clinton also passed up the chance to demand that her husband's library and foundation disclose its donors. At a time when Norman Hsu has revived the issue of campaign finance scandal in the Clinton political world, that was a striking failure. By saying "You'll have to ask them," Clinton undercut her earlier assertion of strength. That means the issues of independence and baggage remain on the table.

The Truth Squad

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