Clinton's Cringe-Worthy Moment

Hillary Clinton should probably spend a little more time boning up on her husband's trade record than watching NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

That might have helped her to figure out that no good was going to come from trying to be funny, biting and substantive at the same time.

But, as she did last week with her "change you can Xerox" line about Barack Obama's borrowing of speech lines, Clinton tried to take a swing at Obama and hit herself in Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate.

It was a hit she couldn't afford to take.

With the criticial Ohio and Texas primaries less than a week away, Clinton needed to get everything right Tuesday night.

Instead, she created one of the more cringe-worthy moments of the 20 Democratic presidential debates in which the pair have participated.

Recalling last Saturday night's spoof of Obama-friendly media - which saw faux journalists asking an actor playing Obama if he was comfortable and then demanding that an actor playing Clinton answer probing questions - the senator from New York suggested that MSNBC debate moderators Brian Williams and Tim Russert were going easy on the senator from Illinois while giving her a hard time.

"Well, can I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time. And I don't mind. I -- you know, I'll be happy to field them," Clinton said after taking a perfectly legitimate question about the trade policy issues that are so central to the Ohio primary fight that will be decided March 4. "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. I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues. But I'm happy to answer it."

Judging by the audience's reaction, Clinton struck precisely the wrong note.

As with the "change you can Xerox" line, Clinton's jab was greeted with boos.

On a night when she needed to turn in the best performance of her political career, the former frontrunner instead seemed petulant, even desperate.

Obama, in contrast, was able to suggest that his campaign "doesn't whine."

And in so doing he prevailed.

In a debate that failed to reveal fundamental differences between the candidates on the health care and trade issues that tended to dominate the night, he came across better: smoother, less easily ruffled, more in control.

Clinton, as has been her pattern in debates, was quicker on her feet and more detailed in her answers. At her best, she succeeded in presenting herself as what she seeks to be: the more experienced, more worldly and more politically savvy contender.

But Clinton was not always at her best, as the "Saturday Night Live" shtick illustrated.

Take her actual answer to the trade question.

"You know, I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning," she claimed. "I didn't have a public position on it, because I was part of the administration, but when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic. I've said it was flawed. I said that it worked in some parts of our country, and I've seen the results in Texas. I was in Laredo in the last couple of days. It's the largest inland port in America now. So clearly, some parts of our country have been benefited."

Let's try and follow that one for a moment.

Clinton's been "a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning." Does that mean she argued against the trade deal back in 1993, when the Congress was debating it? Well, not really. The best Clinton could do was to say, "I think (White House hanger-on)David Gergen was on TV today remembering that I was very skeptical about it."

Clinton says that, from the time she started running for her New York Senate seat in 2000, she's "been a critic." But, as recently as 2004, she was suggesting that, on balance, NAFTA's been good for New York and America.

Clinton says she's "a critic," that the deal is "flawed." But in the same breath she is detailing how "some parts of our country have been benefited."

In a word, her answer, which Russert got her to repeat several times, was "convoluted."

Obama was not particularly better. After Clinton had dodged and deviated for the better part of ten minutes, the Illinois senator said, "I think actually Senator Clinton's answer on this one is right."

In fact, for all of the sparring on the issue, the two candidates ended up saying pretty much the same thing.

"I will say we will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it, and we renegotiate on terms that are favorable to all of America," said Clinton.

"I will make sure that we renegotiate, in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about," said Obama.

Not an inch between them.

And that made the debate a win for Obama.

The Illinois senator, who is surging in the polls in Ohio, Texas and nationally, only needed to hold his own Tuesday night.

He did that, with a little help from Hillary Clinton.

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 (c) 2008 The Nation

© 2023 The Nation