Thursday, November 01, 2007

is Hillary in trouble? maybe...

So you've probably heard by now that Hillary had a hell of a time in the debate the other day. She got caught faking a position on an admittedly complex immigration issue, and Dodd, Edwards, and Obama ripped her a new one (and are continuing to today). And worst of all, it actually got media coverage; Brian Williams made time to show it, as did Katie Couric, as well as our local news.

On the other hand, I'm always talking about made-up scandals and traditional media values that predispose them to harping on certain (unimportant) issues while glossing over or not even noticing other (actually important) ones. Is this all smoke, just more b.s. from the same Beltway crowd that spent 8 long years deriding and wagging their fingers at her husband because, as David Broder famously put it, "he came over here and trashed the place, and it's not his place?" Will this matter a wit in the primary?

That depends entirely upon whether voters decide it matters. I know, that sounds like a cop-out, but we've seen rhetorical stumbles derail presidential campaigns before. Anyone remember "Actually I voted for it before I voted against it..."? I'm tempted to conclude that the reason that line succeeded so mightily and stood out from all the rest of the chatter so much is because it was something 1. out of Kerry's own mouth that 2. got widespread media coverage when people were listening and 3. perhaps most importantly, fed an already existent, if inchoate, narrative about John Kerry (in this case, the "flip-flopper").

Comparing the two, notice that Hillary's gaffe is similar, but not perfect. It was words that she said herself, and it feeds an emerging narrative about Hillary that she has no core values, but has incredible ambition, and thus will "say anything to get elected." She was confronted with a case where the more popular position was not apparent, and she couldn't find a position. I think that she's vulnerable to such a narrative (as are, frankly, all Democrats simply because they are Democrats), and there is still time to fall.

In fact, I think Hillary is more vulnerable to this narrative because of her electoral strategy. The reason that Hillary is favored among both liberals and centrists, among big business dems and pro-regulation dems, among anti-war voters and defense contractors, is because she's opted to become a cypher. People ridicule Obama for being too vague on policy, but the fact is that Hillary has made it a point to talk big about how the Iraq War should be stopped, or how we need a new health care system, or we need to stop climate change, and then she releases a plan that wows with detail but leaves all the big doors open.

Will Hillary stop the Iraq War? Hillary wants to keep a residual force there; how big would that "residual force" be? 1,000? 10,000? 100,000? She won't say, and that's the $64,000 question that decides whether she is pro-war or anti-war, isn't it? If 100,000 troops remain in Iraq past 2013, in what way has she "ended" the war?

And what about health care? She says she'll set up a government-run alternative health insurance for the poor, but how good will it be compared to private health insurance? That is the central question, because nationalized health care is capable of being far more efficient and negotiating lower prices, which would make it an attractive alternative even for those with private insurance. But if she's had it vetted by the insurance industry, which she says she has, how would they allow such a thing unless it was kept artificially shitty so that no one would actually opt for it unless they had no other choice?

Hillary talks a big talk, talks about change and reform and whatnot, but on every position she's left herself an out to avoid the reformist position if she so chooses, and that makes people able to see in her whatever they want to see. Anti-war democrats will tell you with a straight face that Clinton is the candidate to end the war, and no matter how many times you throw that residual force nonsense in their face, they continue to press the issue because they only see what they want to see. Meanwhile, several prominent hawks have said they support Hillary because she's the one least likely to end the war, and claim she's never said anything about ending the war. They see in her what they want to see because Hillary gives them both options.

That's why this moment in the debate is trouble: she tried to do the same thing here, to give people both options so that everyone thinks she took their own position, but she flubbed it and got caught. I think Edwards' attack was the most damaging ("I think I just heard Hillary give 2 different positions in 2 minutes") because it highlighted her actual strategy. That's exactly what she did.

Hillary's actually lucky that no other moments from the debate went viral, because not long at all before the immigrant driver's license snafu, she was asked to pledge that "Iran would not get nuclear weapons during her administration," and she resorted to dissembling so juvenile that the audience actually laughed at her answer:

It was a stupid move. She should've just pledged.

But I digress. "Will this actually damage her campaign?" is the issue. There's a big reason to believe it won't: the number 2 above--getting widespread media coverage when people are listening. Yeah, Brian and Timmy and Katie and John Stewart all covered it, but there's reason to believe that very few voters have really started paying attention to the race yet. How little attention, you may ask? Well, only 59% of Americans-- slightly over half-- can name even one single Republican running in the primary. And "most" are unable to even name any Democrats other than Hillary and/or Obama. Furthermore, it is still 2 months until the first primary, and 3 or 4 months until most of the country actually votes. Not to mention, the debate itself was on MSNBC, not exactly the most watched primetime spot.

If people did notice, however, I think this could get out of hand for Hillary pretty quickly. Suddenly li'l Timmy (not to mention actual voters!) would be focused on getting specifics out of her that slam the door on all those little outs, and as she's forced to take actual positions on everything, many will become less pleased with her, but any attempts to hedge, even the slightest bit, would further legitimize the narrative and undermine her credibility and perceived integrity.

Then, and only then, will we have ourselves a race.

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