In the Arena

Tonight’s Debate

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A good night for both candidates…and a lovely final statement–now there’s a metaphor!–by Hillary Clinton. I did think Obama bested her in two important exchanges, though. The first was Obama’s alleged plagiarism, where his assertion that this was “silly season…and that discourages people” [from voting, participating etc] utterly trumped her canned “change you can xerox” line.

The other key moment was the Commander in Chief question. Clinton was unable, or unwilling, to say why she would be a better Commander-in-Chief than Obama and made a lame, peripheral case for herself: she had traveled a lot as First Lady, she had talked about women’s rights in China, the Serbs were burning our embassy, there was a new government in Cuba…None of which actually have to do with the Commander-in-Chief aspect of the job–that is, running the military. Obama’s answer was much better, focusing in on the real trouble spots–Iraq and Afghanistan, and on the depleted condition of the armed forces. It was a strong statement that he then reinforced with his brilliant answer on the surge: it was a “tactical success” masking a “strategic blunder.” (Her answer had been mushy, forgettable.)

In the end, I suspect, Hillary Clinton made a basic decision about herself tonight: She decided that it just wasn’t natural for her to attack, attack, attack–the xerox line was a lone exception, and she almost seemed embarrassed saying it–and that she wanted to be able to remember this campaign with pride, and be able to look herself in the mirror.

No doubt, assorted blowhards will say that she had to demolish Obama tonight and didn’t…But they’ll be wrong. If she had demolished him, she would have immolated herself. Those who argued for aggression are dinosaurs, relics of a clunky pre-interactive politics that has slipped into the past this year, a politics where consultants were considered clever if they could supply lines like the “xerox” gambit. That just seems extremely over now. The Clinton campaign is beginning to look pretty much over, too. It’s been an honorable effort, by and large. She’s been an excellent, substantive candidate. But she’s essentially the same candidate she was last summer, maybe a bit less confident, and he has grown far beyond the shaky tyro he seemed in the early debates. It is hard to imagine that Obama–a very cool customer–will be intimidated if he climbs in the ring with McCain.

Morning Update: There’s a fair amount of hemming and hawing among Swampcommenters about whether Clinton plagiarized her final statement last night…from her husband. I don’t think so. First, “The hits I’ve taken are nothing compared to the sufferings of…” trope has become an oft-repeated political cliche since Bill Clinton used it in 1992 (and, for all I know, it may have been used before that–most of what passes for political rhetoric has been used before, modified, adorned and adapted for the moment.)
But that statement wasn’t what was extraordinary about Clinton’s close. The most important–and totally fresh–part was the vivid, well-told story about attending the ceremony at the military hospital and watching the maimed soldiers enter, which was what made “the hits I’ve taken” conclusion appropriate. Also memorable was the gracious acknowledgment of Obama. And the real emotion that informed the whole presentation.
Clinton rarely is a moving speaker, but she was last night.

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