Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hillary Plays It Safe In Debate, And Hurts Herself

There came a moment in last night's Democratic debate of presidential candidates in Philadelphia where it seemed that Sen. Hillary Clinton lost her poise, appeared to reverse a position she had taken just seconds before, and opened herself to charges from her opponents, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, that she was obfuscating.

It was mentioned high in both the New York Times and Washington Post stories this morning, as recorded on the Web sites (but the debate was too late to make it into the New York Times national edition, as published here in California). It got only brief notice way down in the story written by the Los Angeles Times reporters, Mark Barabak and Peter Nicholas.

But I felt it was a most significant moment, and it came on an issue related to illegal immigration on which Clinton could be vulnerable if she is the Democratic nominee. It seems highly likely immigration will be a Republican issue in 2008, and it has already become one in the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

The matter concerned New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and his on-again, off-again support of issuing drivers licenses to illegal immigrants in that state. Spitzer, facing resistance, has recently backed off that position himself. But Clinton spoke of it as an operative proposal, and at first indicated that to her it made sense, only to back off seconds later and maintain she had no position on it. Clinton used the term "undocumented," so loved by immigration advocates as a term for people in this country illegally. (Wednesday, Clinton shifted position again, now coming out in favor of Spitzer's efforts. A New York Times story posted Wednesday afternoon said Clinton's own people thought the New York senator was tense and listless in the debate).

Both Edwards and Obama in the debate accused Clinton of wanting to have two positions at once, with Obama saying,, "What we've had seven years is double talk from Bush and Cheney, and I think
America deserves us to be straight."

Washington Post reporters Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz called this the "most telling exchange" of the debate, and I agree.

The reason is that it shows a Clinton determined to say nothing that would stamp her with a definite position on a controversial issue. Assuming, from the polls, that she is ahead in the contest for the Democratic nomination, she seems willing to sit on her lead.

But this made her look phony, as she did also when moderator Tim Russert challenged her on conflicting statements she had made in Iowa and elsewhere on taxing the social security benefits of the wealthy.

Clinton looked slippery last night, which in the long run will probably not be to her advantage.

Parenthetically, in yesterday's New York Times, Katherine Seelye had a short item noting that of 11 active Democratic races for the nomination since 1952, "only five of the candidates who were leading the national polls in January won the nominations. "

These were Adlai E. Stevenson in 1956, John F. Kennedy in 1960, Walter F. Mondale in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1992 and Al Gore in 1960. The poll front-runners who did not win the nomination included Estes Kefauver in 1952, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, Edmund S. Muskie in 1972, Edward M. Kennedy in 1976 and Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart in 1988.

This is a statistic that must confound those (including myself) who have virtually awarded the nomination to Clinton in various recent commentaries.

For once, after watching last night's debate, it struck me that either Obama or Edwards might rise against Clinton and, conceivably, defeat her in the Iowa caucuses. That could, of course, have an effect on momentum in the primary contests that will follow the Jan. 3 Iowa event.

--

Reading back issues of the L.A. Times after my recent trip, I came on the new Thursday "Guide" section, and was not impressed. I had thought that Times publisher David Hiller promised to improve the TV listings in the paper, following his decision to scrap the weekly TV Guide, and that this would be done in Guide. However, unchanged TV listings actually remain in Calendar, and Guide is a glitzy celebrity-oriented section like the ill-begotten Image. Hiller and his Chicago Tribune overlords seem to think Los Angeles readers are mainly focused on celebrities, when I do not think that is the case.

The one improvement is that the Thursday Calendar section no longer is appearing in tabloid form, a mistake dating back to the Shelby Coffey era. Under Hiller, the paper has corrected the design deficiencies of the past, including virtually all the very unfortunate innovations of John Carroll's choice as design editor, Joe Hutchinson, who thankfully resigned after his work was undone.

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