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Valedictory in Texas...
It sounded like a concession.
Hillary Clinton, after what came across more like a valedictory statement than a rallying cry, turned to the man who so soundly defeated her in this week's Wisconsin primary and said, "No matter what happens... I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored."
The statement, with which she closed Thursday night's 19th Democratic presidential debate, was so heartfelt, so sincere, that Obama put one arm around his opponent's shoulder and reached a hand across the table to warmly shake her hand.
It was an oddly disarming moment that belonged to the New York senator but not in the way that she or her supporters could have wanted.
Clinton seemed to surrender, graciously.
Obama seemed to accept that surrender, equally graciously.
And rightly so.
In a debate where Clinton needed to deliver a knock-out blow in order to renew a candidacy that faces a make-or-break moment in the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries, she made little progress for a campaign that seems to be broken.
Clinton even observed during the forum on the University of Texas campus that "you can tell from the first 45 minutes, you know, Senator Obama and I have a lot in common."
True enough, but not exactly the call to action for a low-on-funds campaign that needs to come from behind after 11 straight primary and caucus defeats.
Worst of all, she threw a wild punch that missed completely. When the subject of Obama's borrowing of speech lines from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick came up, Clinton mocked her foe's campaign slogan, saying, "you know, lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox."
The audience, which was generous to both candidates through most of the debate, moaned.
There were a few boos for Clinton.
Obama was never booed.
Indeed, he owned the moments that were supposed to expose his weaknesses.
The senator from Illinois actually won the debate about plagiarism.
"I've been campaigning now for the last two years. Deval is a national co-chairman of my campaign, and suggested an argument that I share, that words are important," said Obama, "Words matter. And the implication that they don't I think diminishes how important it is to speak to the American people directly about making America as good as its promise. Barbara Jordan understood this as well as anybody. And the notion that I had plagiarized from somebody who was one of my national co-chairs who gave me the line and suggested that I use it, I think, is silly."
Obama was even more effective when he turned the suggestion that his campaign is weak on substance into a ringing defense of the movement that supports his candidacy.
"Senator Clinton of late has said: Let's get real. The implication is that the people who've been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional..." said Obama. "You know, the thinking is that somehow, they're being duped, and eventually they're going to see the reality of things. Well, I think they perceive reality of what's going on in Washington very clearly. What they see is that if we don't bring the country together, stop the endless bickering, actually focus on solutions and reduce the special interests that have dominated Washington, then we will not get anything done. And the... reason that this campaign has done so well is because people understand that it is not just a matter of putting forward policy positions. Senator Clinton and I share a lot of policy positions. But if we can't inspire the American people to get involved in their government and if we can't inspire them to go beyond the racial divisions and the religious divisions and the regional divisions that have plagued our politics for so long, then we will continue to see the kind of gridlock and nonperformance in Washington that is resulting in families suffering in very real ways. I'm running for president to start doing something about that suffering, and so are the people who are behind my campaign."
That would have been the best statement of the night.
But then there was Clinton's close.
Asked to describe "the moment that tested you the most," Clinton began: "Well, I think everybody here knows I've lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life."
The crowd applauded, enthusiastically.
Then she continued.
"But people often ask me, 'How do you do it?' You know, 'How do you keep going?' And I just have to shake my head in wonderment, because with all of the challenges that I've had, they are nothing compared to what I see happening in the lives of Americans every single day."
Recalling a visit to a medical center designed that provided rehabilitation for wounded soldiers, Clinton said, "You know, the hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country. And I resolved at a very young age that I'd been blessed and that I was called by my faith and by my upbringing to do what I could to give others the same opportunities and blessings that I took for granted. That's what gets me up in the morning. That's what motivates me in this campaign. And, you know, no matter what happens in this contest -- and I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored. Whatever happens, we're going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that's what this election should be about."
That was Clinton at her very best, at her most poignant and powerful.
Unfortunately, it sounded like the sort of statement that a candidate makes when he or she is concluding a campaign - not turning it around.
John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
Copyright © 2008 The Nation