Hillary Clinton needed a dominating performance in Tuesday night’s debate in Cleveland to regain a foothold in the Democratic nomination battle. Instead, she became unhinged.
When Clinton was viewed as the inevitable nominee through last fall, the story coming out of each debate was that she was in command, projecting poise, a mastery of the issues, and coolness under fire.
All of these descriptions of her performances reinforced the overarching narrative that Clinton was ready to lead on Day One of her presidency. On issues such as using military force within Pakistan and holding unconditional meetings with foreign dictators, Barack Obama came across as a novice by comparison.
With the roles reversed and Obama now in prime position to capture the Democratic nomination, it was Clinton who needed to play catch up. Because Obama has already won the likeability primary against Clinton, her task was to demonstrate that only she is up to the task of being the nation’s top executive.
Instead, whether it was an extended back and forth on health care, NAFTA, or Iraq, Obama was able to hold his own against Clinton. Though Obama, a little more than three years removed from being a state senator, has a thin political resume, the idea that Clinton was eminently more qualified because she served as first lady was always a farce.
In this debate, Obama artfully pointed out that Clinton is trying to cherry pick the popular aspects of the 1990s in touting her record.
DURING THE CAMPAIGN, Clinton has also promoted her ability to get results, which she contrasts with Obama’s lack of accomplishments.
Strangely, she cites the fact that she presided over one of the biggest domestic policy failures in modern political history — the drive for universal health care in 1993 and 1994 — as evidence that she can get things done because she is battle scarred.
With a velvet glove, Obama noted that her leadership skills were so deficient that she managed to alienate even members of her own party.
And these were among the better moments of the debate for Clinton. When she wasn’t discussing policy, she came off like a madwoman on the street, hawking paranoid pamphlets. First there were the complaints about Obama’s mailers on NAFTA and health care. Then there was the Captain Queeq-like paranoid outburst over the order of questions.
“Well, could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time,” Clinton lamented.
She continued, “And I don’t mind. You know, I’ll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious. And if anybody saw Saturday Night Live, you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.”
With Obama enjoying a solid lead over Clinton in the race for delegates, Clinton has to win Ohio and Texas by huge margins in order to have a realistic chance of overtaking him, because both states allocate delegates proportionately.
But with Texas now a dead heat and Clinton’s lead in Ohio dwindling into the single digits in several polls, there are signs that the Clinton campaign is willing to use any win in the states as a rationale for continuing.
CLINTON WOULD LIKELY make the case that she has won all of the big states such as New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Michigan and Florida, and would stay in the race at least through Pennsylvania on April 22 and perhaps even through Puerto Rico in June and onto the convention.
Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, seemed to be suggesting this in remarks he made in the spin room following the debate.
“We’re looking to be successful in both [Ohio and Texas], and we’re going to the convention,” Penn said. He reiterated later, “If we’re successful here, it will be a tremendous reversal of the momentum you’ve seen.”
I asked Penn if by “successful” he meant winning Ohio and Texas.
“Well, let’s see, you know, there are many ways to judge success,” he replied.
For a follow-up, I asked him whether he would set the bar for success ahead of time. Otherwise, whatever Clinton does, the campaign can go back after the fact and argue that it was a “success.”
Penn moved the goal post further. “Well, you know, this process doesn’t end with these states, it continues on to 16 states,” he said.
But whatever her goals in the short- or long-term, Clinton didn’t help herself Tuesday night.