The Cleveland Debate
Barack Obama’s victory began in the snows of Iowa. He sealed it last night in the snows of Cleveland.
On every issue, he came out ahead in both substance and style.
In heated and repeated exchanges on health care, Obama made two things clear. First, the only important difference between his health-care plan and Senator Clinton’s is the mandates in her plan. Obama carefully explained how Clinton’s mandates would act on people, not government: they would force ordinary people to do things they otherwise would not do. Second, he made clear that his campaign’s mailers, about which Clinton had complained so angrily, do nothing more than draw attention to that fact.
Here’s what he said:
- “The reason [Senator Clinton] thinks that there are more people covered under her plan than mine is because of a mandate. That is not a mandate for the government to provide coverage to everybody; it is a mandate that every individual purchase health care. And the mailing that we put out accurately indicates that the main difference between Senator Clinton’s plan and mine is the fact that she would force in some fashion individuals to purchase health care.”
Clinton lost credibility by failing to acknowledge that basic difference and its consequences. She dodged and weaved, becoming argumentative and defensive. But she never took clear responsibility for imposing mandates that would force adults without children to purchase heath insurance whether they want it or not.
As on so many issues over the course of her campaign, Clinton wanted to have it both ways. She wanted to argue that her rival’s plan doesn’t reach “universal” coverage. But she refused to acknowledge that her plan would reach that goal—if at all—by ordering people about.
The exchange over health care highlighted a crucial difference in style of governance. Clinton would command; Obama would encourage and collaborate. As Obama pointed out again, Clinton’s eagerness to command obedience and freeze out collaboration (even from within her own party) doomed her 1993 health care plan. He made our choice crystal clear. We can nominate a candidate with an imperial style, or we can have genuinely collaborative governance.
On foreign policy, Obama made two key points. First, he patiently explained that his opposition to war in Iraq, before it began, had been no free ride. Although he was not then in the U.S. Senate, he was engaged in a political campaign, and his opposition was politically risky.
More important, his opposition to the invasion was not a bare political position. The most important thing about it was his reasoning and his judgment, which were prescient and correct. As he pointed out in the debate:
- “On the most important foreign policy decision that we face[d] in a generation—whether or not to go into Iraq—I was very clear as to why we should not—that it would fan the flames of anti-American sentiment, that it would distract us from Afghanistan, that it would cost us billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and would not make us more safe, and I do not believe it has made us more safe.”
Near the debate’s end, in one of her few moments of graciousness, Clinton acknowledged that she would change her vote on Iraq if she could. “I’ve said many times,” she asserted, “that, although my vote on the 2002 authorization regarding Iraq was a sincere vote, I would not have voted that way again.” In effect, she acknowledged making a big mistake—on the biggest issue of our generation. Yet until her acknowledgement later in the debate, Clinton seemed to want to put the responsibility for that mistake solely on Bush.
On Pakistan, Clinton still tried to ridicule Obama’s foresight and wisdom. Half a year ago, last summer, he questioned our credulous reliance on Musharraf and suggested pursuing bin Laden in Pakistan if necessary. Clinton accused him of wanting to bomb Pakistan, as sovereign nation. “Last summer he basically threatened to bomb Pakistan,” she said, “which I don't think was a particularly wise position to take.” Obama replied patiently, explaining that he had suggested not bombing, but taking out Al Qaeda leaders based on actionable intelligence (and only if Musharraf wouldn’t). Then he also pointed out that our government did exactly that just this month—killing a senior Al Qaeda commander.
Having been bested on every argument on substance, Clinton lost on style, too. For most of the debate, she was shrill, defensive and angry. She seemed to be seething with suppressed resentment and anger. Little about her was presidential.
In contrast, Obama showed presidential stature, patience and statesmanship. He displayed a range of emotions—seriousness, earnestness, humor, caring and genuine warmth. He concluded with a gracious nod to Clinton—mirroring hers to him in the last debate—saying that he respected her public service and was proud to have campaigned with her.
Despite her claims of overweening “experience,” Clinton’s record is empty on the things that count most. She was wrong to authorize Bush to invade Iraq without even reading the NIE. She was wrong to impose mandates on small business in her 1993 health care plan. She was wrong to develop that plan behind closed doors, freezing out members of her own party. She is wrong to construct her plan around mandates on individuals today. She was wrong not to develop a credible and comprehensive plan to capture or kill our worst enemies, Osama bin Laden and his crew. And she was wrong to criticize and ridicule Obama’s plan, which proved both prescient and right.
Clinton was not defensive, angry and frustrated for nothing. She had and has a lot to explain away. Obama had nothing to apologize for, so he could be gracious, statesmanlike and presidential, which he was. At the end of the debate, Clinton reminded the audience of her sole remaining advantage: she is a woman.
Now it’s up to the voters of Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont to decide accordingly. Let’s all hope they were paying attention and watched the debate.
Note to readers: I have not provided links to individual quotes and paraphrases because the New York Times this time published the entire debate transcript on a single web page, making it easy to search electronically.