Wednesday, October 31, 2007

GAIL COLLINS: Everybody vs. Hillary


Hillary Clinton stood on a stage for two hours Tuesday night, being yelled at by six men. Now this is what they mean by pressure. The most important job in the world is at stake and every single one of the other candidates walked into the presidential debate gunning for her. They began piling on from the first question. She took it all and came out the other end in one piece. She’s one tough woman. Kudos.

Her fighting spirit was all the more impressive because so many of the positions she was defending were virtually indefensible. It’s not easy to try to make a matter of principle out of a refusal to say anything specific about Social Security. And you really need a spine of steel to stand up on national television and explain why it was a good idea to vote for a bellicose Senate resolution on Iran that has given George W. Bush a chance to start making ominous remarks about weapons of mass destruction again.

“Well, first of all, I am against a rush to war,” she said. That would have been disturbing even if she had not attacked the idea of “rushing to war” twice more in the next 60 seconds. Being against a rush to another war in the Middle East seems to be setting the bar a tad low. How does she feel about a measured march to war? A leisurely stroll?

And how could she have voted for an Iran resolution that was sponsored by Joseph Lieberman, who was basically drummed out of his party in Connecticut because of his hyperhawk stance on Iraq? Lieberman, who was once a somewhat boring but apparently good-hearted centrist, has turned into a disaster area for Democrats, a one-man quagmire.

If it hadn’t been for his unhelpful performance in Florida after the 2000 election, perhaps Al Gore would be president now and there would be peace and global cooling throughout the planet. Honestly, there’s a book in this somewhere: Joe Lieberman Ruined Everything.

We digress.

Hillary Clinton is relying on her Democratic audience to understand that all her peculiar positions and triple-waffles have to do with a fear of being demagogued by the Republicans in the general election. But you would have to be a very, very committed Hillaryite to be comfortable listening to two solid hours of dodging and weaving on everything from her vote on the Iran resolution to her husband’s attempt to keep records of their White House communications secret until after 2012. (“{hellip} Certainly we’ll move as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of the National Archives permits.”)

On Social Security, the underlying message seems to be that Clinton will not support any effort to keep the program solvent by eliminating the cap on Social Security taxes until she gets elected president and sets up a bipartisan commission to provide political cover. The problem with that, as Barack Obama pointed out, is that you don’t arrive in the White House with a mandate for anything more daring than appointing a bunch of people to do a study. And when you’re talking about taxing income above $97,500 the same way we do income of, say, $30,000, it’s not really helpful to describe it as “a trillion-dollar tax increase on middle-class families.”

Clinton needs to ration her obfuscations. Otherwise, she risks looking as silly as she did at the end of the debate, when she gave a perfectly rational explanation of why she once said that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses “makes a lot of sense,” then raised her hand a minute later to add that the fact that she understood why Governor Spitzer was trying to do it did not mean that she thought it should actually be done.

The good news for her side was that nobody else seems really poised to take her place in the front of the field. Barack Obama continues to be a calm, measured, let’s-all-work-together presence, occasionally reminiscent of — Oh, Lord! — Joe Lieberman before the fall. Obama’s vision of a presidential leadership that rises above the squabbles and partisanship that stalk the Clintons is extremely appealing. However, it’s tough to play the wise elder statesman when you’re just three years out of the Illinois State Senate.

What the debate did demonstrate was that the others deserve more time to make their case. Hillary might have looked immovable on that stage, but she sure didn’t look inevitable.

There are still two months before the first primaries, contests that as we all know only involve a tiny, tiny number of very, very special voters. (On behalf of the rest of the country, let me suggest that presidential candidates refrain from ending their rallies by saying: “We need your support! If you know anyone in Iowa or New Hampshire {hellip}”) Most of the nation has at least until next February to think about this, and Hillary really hasn’t sealed the deal.

But you do have to give her a few points for not letting the guys push her around.

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